When the COVID-19 pandemic reached America in March 2020, the Hoover Institution temporarily closed its offices and shifted its staff and fellows to the remote workplace. Despite that challenging period, the transition was seamless. Fellows continued to conduct their research at their home offices. Conferences and seminars were conducted on Zoom and other cutting-edge communications applications.
California's public health officials initially projected that the state’s shelter-in-place orders would be enacted for two weeks to contain COVID-19, but the virus proved deadlier and more persistent than imagined. That two weeks was extended to fifteen months. The Hoover Institution didn’t officially reopen its offices until September 2021.
Given its breadth and depth of scholars, the Hoover Institution was uniquely positioned to offer timely and insightful analysis on the diverse set of policy challenges that were ushered in by the multi-faceted COVID-19 challenge. Among the new pandemic era programs Hoover launched was GoodFellows, which debuted on April 1, 2020.
Now in its third year, GoodFellows’ audiences have grown exponentially worldwide, even long after the stay-at-home orders ceased across America, and on other continents. Last week’s broadcast, “Tanks for the Memories,” marks 100 episodes in the series.
Nodding to to the 1990 Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas, starring A-list actors Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, and Ray Liotta, Hoover’s communications team organized its own trio of A-listers, all well known for their scholarly approach in broadening the public’s understanding of complex contemporary events: the influential macroeconomist John Cochrane, the prolific global historian Niall Ferguson, and military historian and geo-strategist H. R. McMaster, a retired three-star US Army general who served as national security adviser to President Trump. Bill Whalen, the Hoover Institution’s Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Distinguished Policy Fellow in Journalism, was tasked to moderate the series.
Each panelist enlivened the series with their unique personalities. For example, in several episodes, Cochrane and Ferguson nod to their colleague McMaster as being the “resident optimist” on many of the issues the three are discussing. Meanwhile, on other occasions Ferguson, with his characteristic candor and wit, teases Cochrane for scrupulously writing and referencing notes during their conversations.
The first episode, “Still a Free Society?” (an appropriate title given Hoover’s mission in advancing individual freedom), examined several issues that were on the minds of many Americans. There was much uncertainty on how COVID spread, when and how businesses and schools would reopen, the extent to which civil liberties can be restricted during a pandemic, and what the future would hold for Sino-American relations, which were on its shakiest ground since Mao had taken power in 1949. Tensions with China were exacerbated during the pandemic because of the behavior of leaders in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in touting the superiority of its draconian public health response while concealing the origins of the pandemic and allowing it to spread beyond China’s shores.
In ensuing episodes, the trio pondered if the world would ever return to normal (that is, the pre-COVID era of in-person learning, commuting to the office, and being free from concern about the spread of deadly disease) and whether the CCP’s aggression, which continued through the pandemic, was setting the stage for a Cold War II with the United States.
During this contentious election year, fuel was added to the proverbial fire when on May 25, 2020, George Floyd, an African American man, was killed while being detained by Minneapolis police officers. The incident led for calls nationwide to defund the police, as well as protests in America’s largest metropolitan areas, some of which turned violent and resulted in millions of dollars in property damage.
In addressing this event, the GoodFellows turned to their first guest, Harvard professor Roland Fryer, who described his research concerning the use of force by police departments against African Americans and outlined possible reforms aimed at keeping civil order while upholding individuals’ civil liberties.
This format proved useful for the series, especially as the hosts sought to attain more diverse perspectives and better understand policy issues that were beyond their own subject expertise. Other guest hosts have included Visiting Fellow Bjorn Lomborg on whether global climate change poses an existential crisis; Harvard University urban economist Edward Glaeser on whether COVID-19 was responsible for population declines in major American cities; Research Fellow Ayaan Hirsi Ali on how waves of Islamic migrants to Europe have eroded women’s rights on that continent; former New York Times writer Bari Weiss on the lack of tolerance for diversity of thought in the workplace in institutions of higher education; Kleinheinz Senior Fellow Stephen Kotkin on the ongoing war in Ukraine and the durability of China’s authoritarian model of government; former Google CEO Eric Schmidt on the brave new world of artificial intelligence; reflections by Hoover director Condoleezza Rice on the 20th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001; and many other scholars, policy makers, and distinguished luminaries.
As the series evolved, the GoodFellows broadened engagement with their viewers and listeners, allowing audience members to send in questions to any of the hosts on policy topics of their choice.
“GoodFellows has been a wonderful opportunity to learn from my deeply knowledgeable colleagues. I am always gratified by the number of thoughtful people I talk to who watch the show,” said Cochrane.
Niall Ferguson said, “GoodFellows was an improvised response to the COVID-19 pandemic at a time when the country was being locked down and it was clear that normal service at Hoover was going to be disrupted for an unknown period of time. As an admirer of both H. R. and John, I was confident that we’d have enough material for a few good conversations. If you’d have told me then that we’d hit a century—a hundred shows over three years and still going strong—I wouldn’t have thought it possible. But it turns out that there’s a market for intelligent, informed discussion with plenty of civil disagreement and a reasonable amount of levity, even after COVID. Who knows, maybe after the next hundred episodes, we’ll get John to relinquish his notepad!”
“Goodfellows is part of my continuing education here at the Hoover Institution. I have learned much from my colleagues Niall and John and have applied for college credit in economics,” said McMaster.
The GoodFellows broadcast has also been a venue for the hosts to launch their bestselling books. In October 2020, McMaster discussed Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World (Harper Collins), a tour d’horizon of countries and regions that pose challenges for the United States and the liberal international order. In March 2021, Ferguson talked about Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe (Penguin Press), a copious history outlining why some societies manage crises, such as COVID-19, better than others. The 100th episode introduced John Cochrane’s magnum opus, The Fiscal Theory of the Price Level (Princeton University Press).
GoodFellows also covered the 2020 election and the cascade of events that culminated in the January 6, 2021, attacks on the US Capitol; assessed how the nascent Biden administration would approach the pandemic, economics, and foreign policy; and provided a postmortem on America’s ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power after the extremist group had sacked Kabul in August 2021.
After Hoover’s offices reopened in September 2021, GoodFellows hosted a live in-person episode before an audience of overseers at the institution’s fall retreat.
Other episodes of GoodFellows provided historical perspective on the highest rates of inflation since the 1970s and, in an April 2022 episode, hosted former US Treasury secretary Larry Summers, who predicted a looming recession.
More recently, in August 2022, Cochrane, McMaster, and Ferguson discussed the implications of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan; and in a September 2022 episode, Ferguson joined remotely from Kyiv, where he reflected on the status of the war and the economic situation in Ukraine.
To view all episodes of GoodFellows, including the most recent, click here.