Book Review by Michele Justic
In light of the current Coronavirus Crisis, 5TJT is revisiting this book review, modified from the original printed in 2017. Tevi Troy has also published a new book, “Fight House,” about the history of conflicts in the West Wing, which will be reviewed in the near future.
Some complaints don’t change. We often hear, “Where is the president?” or “Why hasn’t he spoken out yet?” More and more, we expect near omnipotence in our presidents — that they should be at all places at all times, responding to all situations with 100% accuracy, sensitivity, and stellar leadership. Is this possible? Of course not.
Washington insider Dr. Tevi Troy perhaps knows this more than most. Both a presidential scholar and a key assistant to former President George W. Bush, Troy continues to stay on top of the issues as CEO of the American Health Policy Institute and a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Politico, and other publications. A member of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel examining the U.S.’s readiness to address bioterrorism and naturally occurring outbreaks, Troy always has special focus on emergencies.
Shall We Wake the President? Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office (Lyons Press, 264 pages) is, at turns, a cross between a behind-the-scenes peek of the West Wing and a “Worrywart’s Guide to the U.S.” But overall, he packs a lot of information — historical and contemporary, on both macro and micro levels — into a small volume. The book is divided logically between “Acts of G‑d” and “Acts of Man” and addresses threats of pandemic, food and water crises, extreme weather, and economic collapse under the first category; and terror attacks, the bioterrorism threat, loss of the power grid, and civil unrest under the second.
With no hints of the current crisis to serve as a blueprint, Troy began the book by addressing pandemics including H1N1 and Ebola. In the conclusion, Troy categorizes Woodrow Wilson’s handling of the Spanish Flu Epidemic as the worst handling of a disaster. “The federal response to the influenza outbreak in 1918 can best be described as neglectful. Hundreds of thousands of Americans died without President Wilson saying anything or mobilizing nonmilitary components of the U.S. government to help the civilian population. Additionally, by choosing to continue troop shipments to the front, Wilson enabled the disease to continue to spread rapidly, even as World War I was winding to a close.”
It is interesting to review that the MERS outbreak of 2012 and SARS of 2002 are also classified as coronaviruses. MERS infected more than 1,100 people, with over one-third of infections being fatal. The virus emerged from Saudi Arabia but quickly spread. SARS emerged from China and infected 8,000 people, killing 800, and cost the global economy $50 billion. Troy notes U.S. presidents must master communication, technology, and international cooperation to battle these superbugs.
In a recent article, Jim Geraghty of the National Review stated, “Former HHS official Tevi Troy was an oracle all along, and sadly we didn’t listen to him.” When I asked Troy about his intent in writing the book, he said he was hoping to start a conversation on the appropriate role of the president when it comes to disasters. If we expect too much of the president, we will not only be disappointed, but we as individuals will not be ready to play our parts to protect our homes and communities. For this reason, Troy addresses the gamut of disasters we have had and could face, including Hurricane Katrina, Y2K, September 11, the Tylenol poisonings, the 1977 blackout, race riots, and others. Given Troy’s conservative pedigree, it is not surprising that he believes government should have a tempered response but a strong goal of prevention. So shall we wake the president? Only if his response is informed and helpful at the time.
As click-bait, fake news, and biased reporting can induce a needless frenzy, this book is a recommended read to learn the ins and outs of disaster planning and responses for leaders and laymen.