The Interview: “Security Mom” and CNN Analyst Juliette Kayyem Knows Best

CNN security expert and Cambridge mother of three Juliette Kayyem has plenty to say about Donald Trump, Boston’s recovery, and staying safe this summer.

Portrait by Ken Richardson

The first thing you notice about Juliette Kayyem is her distinctive voice: authoritative, assertive, but always reassuring. It’s the sound of a well-informed friend, or, as she calls herself, a “security mom,” passing on practical wisdom to help you rest easy and feel in control. It’s also one of the reasons why the Harvard Kennedy School senior lecturer, who served in the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration, working on everything from the H1N1 pandemic of 2009 to the BP oil spill, has emerged as a go-to analyst for CNN and WGBH during the COVID-19 crisis. In between preparing for classes and her next broadcast, Kayyem took a break to talk politics, pandemics, and what we can all expect to happen next.

You’re everywhere these days when I turn on the TV or the radio. How are you holding up?

I’m not even sure how to answer that question. I guess it’s like, “I’m pandemic good.” Because if you just say “good,” it sounds weird.

What should we be worried about as we head into summer and fall?

I think it’s just going to be more of the same. As we hit each of these arbitrary so-called deadlines, everyone will keep pushing back, asking, “When can we grease the wheels of commerce or education or recreation?” But it would be foolish to open up the entire economy until we’ve met certain goals…unless the federal government can get their act together and have a plan for how we can have meaningful lives without letting this virus take us over.

What would you like to see the feds do?

Well, I’m just looking at other countries. No one’s doing this without strong testing and tracing programs, so that when they find cases, they can tell 100 people to stay put for a couple of weeks. Otherwise, we’re just playing in the dark. So that’s what gets me angry, because we’ve been inside for more than eight weeks. And that was the deal, right? We’ll stay inside, and government, you get your act together so that we can begin to come outside again. But until they have better tools, we can’t really do that. And until there’s a vaccine, we’re just going to have to manage our way around the virus.

Once they do have adequate testing and tracing, what’s the best game plan?

That’s the million-dollar question, and right now, everyone is sort of trying to figure it out on their own: employers, university presidents, individuals. Polling shows that 70 to 80 percent of Americans are very, very nervous about this opening-up agenda. That’s the confidence index. People don’t have confidence, and rightfully so, that we’ve used this recent time period meaningfully.

What will be the toughest part of the recovery for Boston?

The colleges and universities and schools. Boston’s brand is education, and I think it’s going to be severely disrupted. And it’s not clear that every college is going to make it through. It’s just going to feel very different.

What’s been your favorite quarantine activity so far?

In the first two weeks, I was probably like everyone else: shell-shocked. We had 48 hours to pick up a daughter from Brown University. I have two other kids at home. My husband had to move his work home. My class at Harvard switched on a dime from being in-person to virtual. So if I could just get up in the morning and function, that was okay. My public persona might have made it seem like I was totally fine. I was not fine. And then we got into what I call “the battle rhythm.” We brought the Ping-Pong table up from the basement. It is now, literally, in the center of our living room. I’m also a long-distance runner, so just being able to run is good, even with a mask. And then there are the things that I don’t have to do, like travel for work. I don’t miss that.

I hear you. My husband recently said, “I think the pandemic is going to show my clients that there’s no reason for me to go to the expense and effort of traveling to New York to see them in person all the time.”

Exactly. This is going to change the way we think about work. We’re in a funky period. I call it “adaptive recovery.” We’re just going to be learning, as we go along, about the best ways to function, and it won’t be the same, by any stretch of the imagination. For major employers, their default should be: People work at home. Why would you bring them in, unless it’s absolutely necessary? My husband always accuses me of having FOMO [Fear of Missing Out]. I’m a very social person. So I’ve been incredibly calm, because there’s no FOMO. No one’s doing anything. So my FOMO’s finally beat, but he’s not as social as me, so he’s happy to have no social obligations.

What’s the first restaurant or place you’ll return to once it’s safe?

I shouldn’t really answer this question, because I’m telling everyone that recreation is the last thing they should be worried about. We just have to think differently about the risk calculation of going to a restaurant. It’s funny, I also really want to take a trip with my family, but one of my sons said, “No. We should rent five different houses and not see each other.” But there are local places like Pammy’s and Waypoint that I miss.

Do you think there will be a collective PTSD about gathering in those kinds of places?

I suspect. You can see it in the polling. The calculation is: Is it worth it? What’s the place? Is there social distancing? Do I know everyone who will be there? All of these considerations that we never thought of before. It’s just going to be different.

How do you think we’re doing locally?

We’re doing really good work here, but we’re not an island.

How is this most starkly different from the H1N1 outbreak?

We thought that was a big deal, and it was. It could have been bad. I was part of the Department of Homeland Security leadership team, and the way that it normally works, which is not true with COVID, is that DHS takes the lead in any sort of incident response, and we were able to keep it as a sort of border emergency. It really did stick to the border states, which is a success. Now we have a disaster in all 50 states, plus the territories, plus tribal lands, and that’s never happened before in American history.

What do you say to the people who quote the lower number of cases in Florida, where there wasn’t a shutdown?

Florida is an interesting outlier. We don’t know the whole picture, though, because of the lack of reliable testing, tracking, and data. But what I do know, factually, is that once social distancing happens, we’re able to control community spread.

What about other countries that have opened up, or, like Sweden, never really shut down?

Even in the countries that we say have “opened up,” their policies aren’t exactly “We’re back to normal.” No one’s back to normal. Restaurants are still at a third of capacity. In places where they’ve opened up the parks, they still have rules about how many people can congregate together. They still don’t have large sporting events. The theaters are still not open.

Portrait by Ken Richardson

What do you say to the conspiracy theorists who are saying this virus came from a lab in Wuhan, that it’s Anthony Fauci’s fault, and that he funded the lab?

The national and international analysis from people who are in the know, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said publicly that there is just simply no evidence that it came from a lab. The reason why that’s important is because if this is not going to happen again, we’re going to have to deal with the root causes of how these novel viruses are forming, which, at least in this case, is a food system that has a lot of gaps in China. China was an incredibly bad actor, from keeping the markets open that they’ve been told for years are where all sorts of bad viruses started, to keeping it quiet until they couldn’t any longer and they had to call the World Health Organization.

But there will always be conspiracy theorists, and not only are they wrong, but, of course, in a pandemic, they’re incredibly dangerous.

Do you think we’re more vulnerable as a country to being attacked by a foreign entity during this time?

I don’t think a physical attack. The one good thing about a global pandemic is that everyone is distracted and spending lots of money and resources on trying to control it within their population. I think the bigger national security story is, of course, we’re going to have the election. Do we remain focused on the potential for disruption of our elections? Also, America’s strength, and its projection of strength to the outside world. Donald Trump has brought it down pretty far, and our response to this virus is nothing short of embarrassing. The rest of the world sees that.

What do you think the final U.S. death toll will be?

Well, I was not shocked by the estimate of a million or 2 million. I fear the number could be 400,000 dead by the end of the year, based on averages of modeling. Already 100,000 is too much, and we are opening up while states are still on the incline.

On a lighter note, when you’re on TV, do you hate watching yourself? Do you cringe?

Oh, my God, yes. I’m going to read you something my mother wrote, so you’ll know what my life is like. On CNN, I do the New Day show and then either Anderson Cooper or Don Lemon. My mom’s message today, and this is literally the email: “You look better when you’re further away from the camera.” Can you believe that?

Is broadcasting harder from quarantine?

Absolutely. What happened with CNN is, when everything shut down, we all left New York. They then delivered a package. They said, “We’re going to keep all of our contributors working from home.” So they sent all of this stuff, but no instructions on how to use it. I had the ring light that’s supposed to go behind the computer, and I had it on the floor until a girlfriend looked through my window. She’s a documentary filmmaker and told me where to put it. I think I finally got the lighting right. But I don’t watch myself, and my family doesn’t watch me.

What did you get Anderson Cooper as a baby gift?

I didn’t. I just sent a text. I know. I’m so bad, but it’s not like I know him that well. We’ll meet occasionally when I’m in New York. He’s super nice, both him and Don, and they take their jobs pretty seriously.

How do you approach your role on CNN?

I think about what I want the viewer to take away from it, and generally that might be just one idea. Like yesterday, the idea was the confidence index.

Who’s the person you wish was in charge of a public COVID response?

Well, maybe because I’m good friends with him, but I think Ron Klain is really good at stuff like this. He was the Ebola czar for Barack Obama. Someone who knows how to move things along. That’s all this is, honestly. Making the vaccine? That’s rocket science. That stuff is hard. But the rest of this is just testing kits and manufacturing swabs and getting enough supplies mass-manufactured. It’s just logistics. And you don’t need a medical degree to do it.

What’s the biggest prediction you got wrong at the start of the pandemic?

Well, I was too rosy. I knew that there would be social distancing, but I didn’t think it would be this long and painful. I thought that we’d be at the forefront of figuring out a way to live with the virus. I overestimated America’s capacity.