Dr. Tevi Troy has quite literally written the book on how American presidents handle crisis. Dr. Troy worked in the George W. Bush White House as a domestic policy advisor before his appointment as Deputy Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Troy brings scholarly rigor, real world experience, and a lively writing style to a subject he knows well.
As head of the executive branch of government, the president is government’s first responder in times of national peril. Troy artfully tells the story of how past presidents have handled crises with an historian’s attention to detail and a conservative’s care for the constitutional issues such unusual situations can raise.
Shall We Wake The President should be required reading for anyone contemplating a career in politics, but also offers compelling stories and insights for the most casual observer of American politics.
We asked Dr. Troy some practical and theoretical questions relating to the issues discussed in his book. His answers are below:
1. How much can the President actually do in a domestic natural or other disaster? Aren’t the response teams—be they FEMA or ATF or National Guard or you name it—trained and ready to go without, say, his interference? Might it depend on the political nature, i.e., if there’s a riot or refusal to comply with law?
Presidents obviously cannot show up personally and wrest weapons out of the hands of rioting civilians. There have, however, been some instances of politicians making a difference in defusing unrest. In 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Mayor John Lindsay in New York and Senator Robert F. Kennedy visiting Indianapolis addressed crowds in black neighborhoods and helped calm things down.
Furthermore, presidential inattention to civil unrest can be disastrous. Lyndon Johnson was actively involved in most areas of his presidency, but seemed oddly passive in the face of urban unrest. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who served as urban affairs adviser to Richard Nixon, recalled that upon entering the White House in 1969, the Nixon staff “was presented with pads of forms to be used in calling out the National Guard. Blank spaces were provided for date, time, and place.”
2. What President was most crisis tested and prepared? Who is the model?
I give a lot of credit to Ronald Reagan for his handling of the Tylenol poisonings in 1982. These poisonings killed seven in the Chicago area and contributed to a widespread panic. Reagan was able to do what many leaders cannot: take mediated action. He let Johnson & Johnson, the makers of Tylenol, take charge of the situation; the company withdrew their potentially poisoned product from shelves, and safely and efficiently managed the fallout. Later, when Johnson & Johnson chairman James Burke came to a meeting in the White House, Reagan praised him, saying, “Jim Burke of Johnson & Johnson, you have our deepest appreciation.” The president added that Burke had “lived up to the highest ideals of corporate responsibility and grace under pressure.”
3. What President was the LEAST prepared? People of a certain age might think of Jimmy Carter’s handling of the Iran hostage crisis. Are there other, lesser known cases that deserve greater attention?
Woodrow Wilson gets the dunce award in my book. 675,000 Americans died in the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, without President Wilson saying or doing much of anything. The one thing he was asked to do was to stop troop shipments to Europe, which were spreading the disease among US servicemen. Wilson’s refusal contributed to the spread of the deadly disease. Worse, the transports could have been stopped without much of a harmful effect, as World War I was winding to a close at the time.
4. How have public expectations of the president expanded over time?
Expectations have changed immensely over time due to two main factors. The development of advanced communications and the growth of government. During much of the 19th century, if a crisis took place, most people would not even know about it. In fact, after an 1811 earthquake in Missouri, President James Madison did not find out about the extent of the damage for six weeks after it happened. Once you had instantaneous communications, and more importantly, the spread of images of affected people via TV, there was more of a sense that presidents needed to get involved in disasters. And the development of a large federal government involved in so many aspects of our lives led to greater expectations that the government would get involved and solve problems that arose.
5. Is the role of the Presidency larger than what was envisioned by the Framers of the Constitution? If so, how?
There is no doubt that the Framers had a narrower view of the role of presidents in disasters than we take today. In the 19th century, there was a bipartisan consensus that disaster response was not a federal responsibility. Following the 1889 Johnstown flood, President Benjamin Harrison responded to a request for help by saying that it was the state’s responsibility, explaining that Pennsylvania residents had “a State Board of Health, and unless the governor should request it, Surgeon-General Hamilton could not interfere.” On the Democratic side, in 1887, Grover Cleveland vetoed a bill to appropriate money to provide seeds to drought-stricken counties of Texas, saying that he could “find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution.”
6. What type of crisis most taxes a president?
I think a crisis in which presidents are helpless is the most taxing. Presidents are the most powerful men in the world, and are used to taking strong action. If there is a major hurricane or an earthquake, all of the resources of the federal government can’t do anything to stop it, or the attendant loss of life.
7. What crises do you see on the horizon that future presidents must be prepared to address?
The most predictable crisis in the world is an economic crisis based on our unsustainable $20 trillion in debt. At some point, other countries in the world will not purchase our bonds, which would lead to an economic collapse far more severe than the housing crisis of 2008.
8. The executive must, in some sense, be the first responder to major crises but how does the President fulfill that responsibility without infringing on the rights and responsibilities of Congress and of the states?
This is a tough question. I would be loath to tell an incoming president not to respond to a crisis and to say that it is a state responsibility. Such a move would be politically disastrous. But I think a president can slowly start to explain why certain crises should require presidential attention, while others are best handled at the state level. If a president begins to lay the groundwork for such an approach, over time we could potentially get to a better and more rational place where not every crisis lands on the president’s desk.