Who has time for history, and a guide to managing disasters of the future, when such vast, self-inflicted damage—the legacy of Obamaism, the promise of Trumpism come to mind—must be dealt with at the moment? Here's a wager: Tevi Troy's new book will do well now. It's carefully researched, well written, and draws on Troy's experience in government in a practical and exceptionally refreshing way. (When's the last time you read a book by a former administration official that wasn't at least, in part, a self-branding endeavor?)
The rest of the bet? A book chiefly about planning is going to sell like mad one day—after the next mega-disaster hits the United States. Sooner or later, as Troy warns us, the cataclysm is gonna get you. That's the lesson of history, and Troy's survey is a staggering reminder of how, time and again, blind spots and hubris get in the way of saving lives. He cites this little ditty sung by American schoolchildren at the end of World War I:
I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
A little bird, a not-so-modest health crisis. The Great (or Spanish) Influenza claimed some 50 million lives worldwide. In the United States, the virus infected a quarter of the population, killing as many as 675,000 Americans. Of the American soldiers who fell in Europe during World War I, approximately half died from the flu. Was any of this avoidable?
It was the war effort itself that played a major role in spreading the disease. In February 1918, influenza turned up in Kansas's Camp Funston, where it is thought to have triggered the outbreak across the United States. By mid-March more than a thousand troops at Camp Funston had to be hospitalized. It was Woodrow Wilson's own physician Cary Grayson—a Navy admiral—who brought to the president's attention the probability that troop transports across the Atlantic were helping to spread the deadly virus. In October of that same year, 200,000 Americans had perished.
Wilson raised the matter with the Army chief of staff—and was sternly rebuffed. General Peyton March told the president that the idea of halting or slowing down troop shipments was a nonstarter. Wilson accepted the decree and, writes Troy, "unnecessarily sentenced a great many Americans to death." The war was winding down, and was over in two months. Wilson seemed oblivious to the domestic health crisis, neither publicly nor privately speaking to the problem. He failed to mobilize a federal response to contain the spread of the disease, which could very well have alleviated its impact on millions of Americans. When it comes to such disasters, Troy tells us, there are acts of God (health, food, and water crises; economic collapse); acts of man (terrorism, loss of the power grid, civil unrest); and loads of folly in the way we respond. From the perspective of smooth and efficient management, Troy offers kudos for Franklin D. Roosevelt (halting the Great Depression), Bill Clinton (managing Y2K), George W. Bush (working with his cabinet, Congress, and government agencies in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks), Richard Nixon (responding to Hurricane Camille), and Ronald Reagan (reacting to poisoned Tylenol products). In Reagan's case, the president mediated and wisely let Johnson & Johnson take the lead.
In Troy's doghouse, apart from Woodrow Wilson for his underestimation of the Spanish Influenza, we find Herbert Hoover for his handling of the Depression, Lyndon Johnson for failing to grasp the scope of civil unrest in the 1960s, and Jimmy Carter, who failed to respond effectively to the 1977 New York City blackout and ensuing disorder. Carter accepted little responsibility: He blamed power companies for the outage and minority unemployment for chaos in the streets. His refusal to provide federal aid, and his failure to visit the city, gave the strong impression of a leader detached and oblivious.
Troy notes the same of George W. Bush and Hurricane Katrina. The Bush administration was late in responding and disorganized: "Bush compounded the situation," writes Troy, "by flying over the affected area, and the disastrous photo of him surveying the damage from above made him seem callous and out of touch." But Bush had the self-awareness to reflect on his mistakes in his memoir. Which brings us to the present, and going forward.
Troy uses history as a road map for us to plan better for the future. We cannot predict catastrophes. But from his perch in the Bush White House, and later as deputy secretary of health and human services, he has drawn from his experience to share lessons in policy, organization, coordination, and responsibility. Shall We Wake the President? even gives advice at the individual level. So will the next administration learn? You have to wonder whether, when disaster strikes, the business acumen and practical savvy of Donald Trump will kick in to assure timely and wise decisions.
There's still no substitute for preparing, however, if we want to optimize our chances of getting things right in the midst of an unforeseen catastrophe. For this reason, let's hope Tevi Troy's straightforward and useful account makes its way to the top of the White House reading lists.
Jeffrey Gedmin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and Georgetown University, and senior adviser at Blue Star Strategies LLC.