Six Questions for Tevi Troy, the “Master of Disaster,” About the Politics of Catastrophe


Tevi Troy is a presidential historian, former White House aide and Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services. He is the author of “What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House” and the new “Shall We Wake the President? Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office.”

Tevi and I have our political differences but Tevi’s always got interesting ideas and as far as I’m concerned he’s a five-star individual. Did you know that LBJ had his staff create preprinted forms authorizing deployment of the National Guard to put down rioters? Me neither. Read and learn and buy his book. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q1: So your book is about disasters. Which president screwed up the worst in handling a national emergency?

A1: I have to put Woodrow Wilson at the top of my list.  He was president during the Great Influenza of 1918, which killed 675,000 Americans.  It’s certainly true that America knows a lot more about flu now and how it spreads than America knew then, but even so, there was a lot more that Wilson could have done to help the situation.  Just to take one example, he refused to stop the shipments of US troops to Europe in World War I, even though his own doctor told him that the troop transports were spreading the disease among the troops on those transports, as well as in Europe. In addition to that poor decision, he said nothing publicly about the disease, and the propaganda machine he created to promote World War I and to root out sedition discouraged discussion of unpleasant topics such as the flu.

Q2: Who’s the runner-up and why? 

Q2: Herbert Hoover gets second place for his poor handling of the Great Depression. His communications skills were poor, especially in the new medium of newsreels, which made him look older than he was. He doesn’t deserve blame for causing the Depression, but his policy prescriptions certainly did little to stop the crisis. And his overly optimistic and incorrect predictions, such as his May 1930 one that the worst was over and recovery near undermined his own credibility as well as American morale.  The biggest irony of Hoover’s failure was that before being president, he was known as the Master of Emergencies for his successful work in combating hunger in Europe during World War I and in leading recovery efforts after the 1927 Mississippi flood.  So he was a national hero before serving as president, but has been tagged as a goat by history for his stint as president.

Q3: OK, who gets the bronze?

A3: Bronze was a tough call, but I give it to Lyndon Johnson for his failure to stop the annual summer race riots that took place throughout his administration. The causes of the riots were varied—poverty, racial strife, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.—but Johnson failed to get a handle on them. The worst was after the 1968 riots following Dr. Kings’ assassination, taking place in Washington, DC, only blocks from the LBJ White House. Johnson flew over a riot-torn Washington in Marine One overlooking the damage on the ground in Washington. A photo of Johnson in the helicopter is eerily reminiscent of the famous photo of George W. Bush looking out over New Orleans after Katrina. The photo did not become as well-known as the picture of Bush– who earns the dubious fourth place award in this category – but it does depict an impotent president struggling with forces he cannot seem to understand. 

In a grim coda to this story, Daniel Patrick Moynihan reported that when he entered the White House in 1969 as a Nixon staffer, he “was presented with pads of forms to be used in calling out the National Guard. Blank spaces were provided for date, time, and place.” Rioting had become so pervasive under Lyndon Johnson that his staff even created preprinted forms for dealing with them.

Q4: How did Obama do when it comes to disaster management?

A4: Obama has been lucky in not having had to face any major disasters on the scale of 9/11 or the 1918 flu. That said, he did seem to encounter a steady stream of lower level crises, including swine flu, BP’s Macondo oil spill, and the Somali pirates who attacked an American ship in 2009. At one point, an exasperated Obama said to his aides, “Who thought we were going to have to deal with pirates?”  I would say that Obama’s biggest failure on the disaster front is related to a crisis that has not yet hit: the fiscal crisis that may come from our enormous $19 trillion debt.  The bomb won’t go off on Obama’s watch, but he definitely contributed to a worsening of the situation.

Q5. These are interesting historical examples. Are there any generic lessons here for future presidents about how to prepare for disasters?

A5: I actually have an appendix in which I break out the lessons presidents should learn from history about dealing with disaster, so I urge people to buy the book to get the whole list.  But I will offer up one key lesson, which is about what I call the “ratchet effect.”  Any new action a president takes increasing the involvement of the federal government in a disaster increases the expectations that the media and the American people put on the president for dealing with the next disaster.  In the book, I trace the history of how presidents have become increasingly more involved with disasters, dating back to the 19th century, when disasters were not part of the presidential purview, to today, when presidents are expected to cope with what seems like every disaster.

Q6. In terms of Hillary v. Trump, based on their prior records and personalities, how well is each likely to cope with disaster?

A6: I really worry about this one. Hillary’s lack of credibility presents real problems, especially as presidents may have to ask the populace to do hard things in times of crisis. It’s hard to make that request, or to get the citizenry to follow your directives, if the people don’t trust you.

Trump has a tendency to say things without all the facts, or without sufficient care about the meaning of his words.  In a crisis, presidents need to watch what they say, and make sure they have all the facts together before making pronouncements from the presidential podium.

On the plus side, both Trump and Hillary have suffered highly public setbacks over the course of their careers, and the ability to bounce back may show a creativity and resilience that someone who has never experienced failure might not have.  That’s the most optimistic spin I can put on things.

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