Author Tevi Troy begins his excellent book “Shall We Wake the President?: Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office,” with something innocent.
A children’s song.
It is much like other rhymes that children sing, or used to sing, the nursery rhymes we sang as kids on the South Side of Chicago, near the stockyards, without knowing what they meant, like “Ring Around the Rosie” or “London Bridge is Falling Down.”
But this one involves a tiny bird named Enza:
I had a little bird
Its name was Enza
I opened the window
And by the time it was over, the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 had infected people worldwide and killed more than 50 million. Some estimates put the global death count as high as 100 million.
It killed millions more than World War I, which had already brought unimaginable horrors to Europe.
Up to 675,000 Americans died from influenza. Many more were weakened. The pandemic was so severe that in the U.S. alone, it knocked 10 years off the average American’s life expectancy.
And one man was, in great measure, responsible for spreading the terrible disease. Through hubris and weakness and indecision, he sentenced his own soldiers to death while allowing it to wash across Europe: President Woodrow Wilson.
“President Wilson was sending U.S. troop transports to Europe to fight in WWI, even as the war was winding down,” Troy said in an interview on my podcast, “The Chicago Way.”
“He was told by the Navy that those troop transports were spreading the disease and that he should stop. But the chief of staff of the military objected. Wilson sided with him and the troop transports continued, even though it was only a month before hostilities in Europe ended.”
Wilson also helped the deadly influenza spread in other ways.
“The propaganda machine that Wilson set up that was trying to highlight the war effort and give short shrift to other problems in the country,” Troy said, “and that really undercut the ability to get out the message as to how bad the disease was and promote strategies for combating it.”
If there’s one thing we know about disasters, whether acts of God or acts of man, is that presidents must deal with them, and either make them worse, or better.
Hurricane Katrina was one, the New York power blackouts of 1977 was another. The 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Great Depression following the stock market crash of 1929, the urban riots in the late 1960s — all these and more are examined by Troy, and he dissects the policy responses to each.
Troy is an academic, historian, author and policy analyst who served in the Bush administration as a White House aide and deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Yet “Shall We Wake the President?” isn’t a memoir, or one of those self-congratulatory collections of essays offered to make the author look good. Troy wouldn’t do that, and that’s part of the reason I recommend his book to you, and I don’t recommend many.
His is a hard-eyed look at history, and what presidents — and citizens — may learn from it and how to best deal with what will certainly come our way. Because they always come our way, and presidents who don’t plan properly — like Wilson — often doom their people.
So the reason to read “Shall We Wake the President?” isn’t about reliving old horrors. Instead, it should be read to examine decisions and indecision and bureaucratic traps inadvertently set by the most powerful being on the planet, the president of the United States.
Bad planning and hubris can ripple out from the White House and compound disasters.
“You can’t know what disasters you might face on your watch, but you must think about how you might deal with them,” Troy said. “And you can build a team that is prepared to react to them.”
In our talk, I mentioned Wilson’s role in causing the influenza epidemic to spread, President Jimmy Carter’s mishandling of the New York power blackout, and President George W. Bush’s blunders — of organization and public relations — during the Katrina disaster that devastated New Orleans and his presidency.
All these are covered in Troy’s book. To his credit, Troy did not shield Bush, and instead focused on tragic public relations, including that horrible photograph of the president flying over the Katrina devastation, above it all.
“In all the cases you mentioned, the presidents seemed unprepared and kind of knocked off their game by the disasters that struck them, and the American people can sense it,” he said. “So in my book I talk about communication strategies to reassure the American people, learning about the different mechanisms of government so that you’re ready, and making sure that your staff is trained and drilled to deal with these things.”
To illustrate his point, Troy often uses a story of bureaucrats at some disaster site passing out business cards to one another.
“Then you know you’ve already failed,” Troy said. “And the response will be a failed response, because it means they have not prepared, that they don’t know the other people who are dealing with the disaster, they don’t know their capabilities or lines of responsibility.
“So if you’re out there handing out business cards at the site of a disaster, it’s going to be an even bigger disaster.”