The sight of mild-mannered Tim Kaine, senator for Virginia, wearing a red-and-black bandanna that made him look like a character from Mad Max, said everything about how much has changed.
Kaine was among members of the Senate health committee, some masked, some not, gathered on Tuesday in a bigger-than-usual committee room on Capitol Hill, where hand sanitiser abounded, to discuss getting Americans back to work and school.
But in a sign that the coronavirus is far from beaten, committee chair Lamar Alexander was running the show by video, having entered self-quarantine in Tennessee after learning that an aide tested positive. Members of the White House coronavirus taskforce, and several senators, also took part remotely.
The hearing thus resembled far-flung family members holding a Zoom call, complete with distracting backdrops and interlopers but without the technical glitches of Mother’s Day or a Joe Biden virtual rally. Although some partisan points were scored, the participants displayed more discipline and sobriety than the anarchy down the road at the White House.
Behind Alexander’s green chair was a wooden beam, a big landscape painting above a bare brick fireplace, two bookcases and what looked like sepia photos from a Ken Burns documentary.
The chairman’s pet dog, Rufus, could be heard barking but like many who have endured Senate hearings, by the end he was curled up on a blanket, snoozing. Alexander’s technology worked OK, although he admitted: “I don’t want to cut senators off but it’s hard to see the time clock.”
Bernie Sanders’ backdrop had red walls with framed Red Hit Chilli Peppers and New Power Generation artwork. Elizabeth Warren had white walls with a painting of what appeared to be green fruit, along with a table bearing a small flower pot and high-backed chairs. It had the feel of a corporate serviced apartment.
Pat Roberts of Kansas, by contrast, materialised in front of a giant painting of horses pulling a wagon, flanked by old-fashioned lampshades and a pile of books.
“That’s a stagecoach coming into Dodge as opposed to coming out of Dodge,” he explained. “Dodgy City is my home town.”
It’s also a virus hotspot, after an outbreak at a meat packing plant.
Mitt Romney of Utah, in glasses, white shirt and blue patterned tie, sat before two dozen family photos. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, was the tech-savvy family member: he blurred his background.
But the star witness was Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and champion truth-teller.
The last time he appeared in such a format he was being played by Brad Pitt on Saturday Night Live. On Tuesday, with neatly cut hair, grey suit jacket, blue shirt and blue tie, it was the real thing sitting in a busy office, a big plant outside his window, books piled high. Another man was briefly visible in an adjoining room but, perhaps after seeing himself on TV, soon disappeared.
Fauci did not offer the searing denunciation of Donald Trump some craved. But in his diplomatic way, he offered plenty of reality checks and coded rebukes to the president’s headlong rush to reopen.
What are the dangers of reopening too quickly without following task force guidelines, he was asked.
“My concern is that if some areas, city, states, or what have you, jump over those various checkpoints, and prematurely open up without having the capability of being able to respond effectively and efficiently, my concern is that we will start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks … The consequences could be really serious.”
And as Trump has claimed more than once, is the virus going to disappear? “That is just not going to happen.”
During Fauci’s testimony, Rand Paul, bearded, rocked back and forth in his chair with hands folded. When his turn came, he indulged in some media bashing and, like a man trying to win a pub argument, insisted people who have recovered from the virus are probably immune. Paul has recovered and does not wear a mask. Fauci agreed it is likely but noted that proper scientific studies are yet to prove it so.
The senator wondered why many states are deferring to Fauci on reopening without consideration for local conditions.
“I think we ought to have a little bit of humility in our belief that we know what’s best for the economy,” he said. “And as much as I respect you, Dr Fauci, I don’t think you’re the end-all. I don’t think you’re the one person that gets to make a decision. We can listen to your advice but there are people on the other side who say there’s not going to be a surge.”
Fauci responded: “I have never made myself out to be the end-all and only voice in this. I’m a scientist, a physician and a public health official.”
Trump’s narrative of a virus in retreat suffered a major blow. Warren declared “the time for magical thinking is over” and asked if the virus was contained. Fauci replied: “I think we’re going in the right direction but the right direction does not mean, by any means, we have it under total control.”
Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016, asked tough questions about why the US had fared so poorly compared to South Korea. He seemed determined to live up to the apocalyptic vision of his bandanna. Social media loved it.
Veterans advocate Travis Akers tweeted: “Tim Kaine currently looks like a movie character that was a once an outstanding citizen in the community, but got mistakenly caught up in a white-collar crime and now has to rob a bank to save his family.”
Patrick Dillon, former deputy director of political affairs for Barack Obama, added: “It’s so rare to see Tim Kaine’s evil twin, the notorious highway bandit Tom Kaine, out in public like this. Scramble the US Marshals, this may be our only chance to finally nab him.”