Magazine | November 21, 2016, Issue

Mastering Disaster

Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, July 18, 1928 (National Archives/Herbert Hoover Presidential Library)
Shall We Wake the President? Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office,  by Tevi Troy (Lyons, 264 pp., $26.95)

Every time I teach my class on emergency-management communications, I lament the absence of a text that applies historical research to the study of past catastrophes and disasters with an eye toward minimizing the effects of future ones. In this outstanding new study, Tevi Troy has solved my problem and those of many people tasked with managing the response to disasters. It should be required reading for the next president and his or her transition team.

Troy brings to his task the detachment of a presidential scholar and the hands-on experience of a practitioner. He held positions of responsibility under Presi­dent George W. Bush, whose administration was defined by three of the worst disasters in American history: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; the devastation Hurricane Katrina left in its wake in September 2005; and the fi­nancial meltdown of the fall of 2008. Looking back over these events as well as those that took place during the administrations of Bush’s predecessors, Troy draws up a list of useful do’s and don’ts for future presidents and those in whose name they govern. He succeeds at his tasks very impressively.

As Troy makes clear, no president can, in the course of four or eight years, avoid the challenges of unanticipated catastrophes, be they terrorist attacks, natural disasters, pandemics, or other emergencies. How presidents respond to such events can determine the fate of their administrations. Future presidents will not be comforted to know that their credibility in this area is only as good as was their response to the most recent crisis.

Troy cannot repeat too often that the best approach to crisis management is to prevent the eruption of such emergencies in the first place or, barring that, to plan for them as far in advance as pos­sible. In this latter area, he gives Bill Clinton high marks for making sure that Y2K did not become the first crisis of the 21st century. The answer to the question the title of Troy’s book poses is a resounding “Yes.” If presidents are to be praised or damned for how they respond to or anticipate crises not of their making, they should not be among the last to know what might lie in store for them.

There was a time, Troy reminds his readers, when the public did not expect presidents to play a major role in disaster relief. Such was the case during most of American history. With the coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and its major legacy, increased involvement by the federal government in so many aspects of American life, that began to change. Prior to that time, the first lines of defense were local and state governments.

In 1887, Grover Cleveland vetoed a congressional appropriation that would have provided funds to drought-stricken counties in Texas. His rationale was that he could find “no warrant” for such a measure in the Constitution. Cleveland did not stop there: He maintained that such federal aid would encourage the expectation that the federal government would play an increasingly paternalistic role in the lives of its citizens. He also warned that federal action of this sort would weaken the sturdiness of the nation’s character.

By the time of the 1927 Mississippi river flood, which affected several states, more people were able to keep up with unfolding events, courtesy of mass-circulation newspapers and the burgeoning medium of radio. As a result, the de­mands for a greater federal role in providing disaster assistance increased. Calvin Coolidge, the last of the Cleveland-style “strict constructionists,” fretted about the precedent-setting nature of federal assistance and changed public expectations about the federal government that such aid would trigger.

Like Troy, Coolidge may have sensed that the more the federal government took on, the less effective it might be­come in fulfilling its assigned functions. But Coolidge was not prepared to stand idly by when Americans were suffering the effects of catastrophe, especially when he was in a position to help. He sent his commerce secretary, Herbert Hoover, who had become a legend for his work to feed civilian populations in war-torn Europe during the Great War, to coordinate local, state, and private-sector efforts under the watchful eye of a benevolent, efficient, and frugal federal government. After he had completed his task, Hoover returned to his previous duties. And Coolidge, rather than es­tablish a new department or agencies to confront future emergencies, pushed back against an ongoing federal role in flood control and other disaster-response tasks. He left all of that to FDR and his imitators.

Of the recent presidents, only Ronald Reagan sought opportunities to act in the manner of Coolidge, whose portrait he displayed in the Cabinet Room. When several Chicago residents succumbed to cyanide poisoning after in­gesting Tylenol tablets that had been tampered with, Reagan found his Hoover in James Burke, the chairman of Johnson & Johnson, Tylenol’s manufacturer. Reagan checked in on the situation regularly, allowing the FBI and the Food and Drug Admin­istration to discharge their traditional functions, but asked for nothing new or permanent after the immediate crisis had subsided.

Troy’s book brings to mind Milton Friedman’s observation that, during crises, the urge “not to stand there, but to do something” can blind policymakers to the resources already at their disposal. It is particularly telling that of the nine lessons Troy lists for future presidents to learn, at least six pertain to communications. Presidents have found out the hard way that it is not enough for them to assume command and control of emergency situations. It is essential that they also keep the public informed and up to date.

With the multiple communications arteries currently available to the government, emergency responders, and citizens, presidents who act in the ways Troy recommends have opportunities to do more than manage crises successfully. They might be able to channel the energy and enterprise of the American people in pursuit of common goals that will take more than the work of presidents to attain.

 – Mr. Felzenberg is the former spokesman for the 9/11 Commission and the author of the forthcoming book A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr.

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