SHALL WE WAKE THE PRESIDENT?: TWO CENTURIES OF DISASTER MANAGEMENT FROM THE OVAL OFFICE
By Tevi Troy
Lyons Press, $26.95, 238 pages
Tevi Troy, CEO of the American Health Policy Institute and former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and White House aide, tells us he “spent most of the first decade of the 21st century working in the executive branch of the U.S. government dealing with disasters.”
He began at the Labor Department just eight months before Sept. 11, 200. Following the attacks, he moved to the White House Domestic Policy Council, where he was involved in the early days of the Department of Homeland Security. When in no small part because of his response to September 11 George W. Bush was re-elected, Mr. Troy stayed on, working on programs to sharpen governmental responses to disasters, both man-made and natural.
Since 2001, no doubt in part because of the communications revolution that helped elect Donald Trump, coverage of disasters has become immediate and far-reaching, often with disastrous political consequences. And perhaps because of the undeniable growth of the imperial presidency, people increasingly expect presidents to respond to disasters of all kinds.
When something like Hurricane Katrina hits and the response is badly handled, with feds blaming locals, locals blaming feds, and people suffering visibly for all the world to see, and when the president seems uncertain and out-of-touch — an ill-advised flyover, a televised handshake with his inept FEMA director, and the unforgettable, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” — President Bush lost much of the political capital he’d gained from his handling of September 11.
The response to this disaster, writes Mr. Troy, “would shape Bush’s second term, just as 9/11 shaped his first.” And that wasn’t the end, “as the subprime financial crises of 2007 and 2008 soon led to the Great Recession, the most severe banking crisis and economic dislocation since the Great Depression.” And that’s to say nothing of the political disaster for the Republican Party, helping as it did to guarantee the election of Barack Obama.
With the Obama administration, there came a new set of crises — swine flu, a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, ISIS, Ebola, rioting in Ferguson and Baltimore, Somali pirates: “Who thought we were going to have to deal with pirates?” asked President Obama.
All such disturbances have the potential to develop into full-scale disasters, defined by Mr. Troy as having an impact “beyond one local area and the potential to cause some kind of systemic breakdown.”
Mr. Troy provides a thorough examination of a variety of natural and human disasters — health crises, terror attacks, including bioterror and cyber-attacks among them — and discusses the developing role of presidents in dealing with them, and how presidents have dealt with them in the past.
In an appendix, Mr. Troy rates the five best and five worst presidents at dealing with disasters.
The best is Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Great Depression, then Bill Clinton and the millennium bug; George W. Bush and September 11; Richard Nixon (and Spiro Agnew) and Hurricane Camille; and Ronald Reagan and the Tylenol poisonings.
The five worst — Woodrow Wilson and the Spanish Influenza, in which hundreds of thousands of Americans died with no effort at mobilization, and no attempt to halt troop shipments to the front, which “enabled the disease to continue to spread rapidly, even as World War I was winding to a close.”
Next is Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression, then Lyndon Johnson and civil unrest: In the 1960s, President Johnson faced dozens of riots but “failed to understand the scope of the civil unrest and to craft a strong and enforceable policy to respond to the riots.”
No. 4 is George W. Bush and Hurricane Katrina, followed by Jimmy Carter and the power outage. “President Carter did very little in reaction to the 1977 New York City blackout. Though the blackouts may have been regional, the flaws that allowed them to occur ought to have spurred Carter to take meaningful action to ensure further blackouts did not occur.”
That failure, as Mr. Troy points out, also helped in Ronald Reagan’s successful campaign to send Jimmy Carter home to Georgia.
In all, Tevi Troy writes interestingly and well about what might be thought of as an arcane subject. But then, as author of “What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted,” he validated his credentials as an accomplished presidential historian. And “Shall We Wake the President?” is the work of a versatile first-rate writer.
• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).