America’s Next Crisis ManagerThe Honorable Tevi Troy, Ph.D
By Tevi Troy
(The Wall Street Journal) – As Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump clash on the debate stage Monday night, viewers should consider how each might handle a disaster as president. One of the topics slated for debate is “securing America,” and indeed, terrorism recently struck New York, New Jersey and Minneapolis. Hurricanes and pandemics also loom as unpredictable threats in the presidential purview.
The campaign has been unusually focused on exactly the characteristics that are essential in a time of crisis: honesty, calmness, resolve. Unfortunately, the two major-party candidates are lacking in important ways. Mrs. Clinton’s email scandal and recent obfuscations about her health undermine her credibility with the American people, which is the basis for effective leadership in a disaster. Without it, leaders cannot count on getting people to follow difficult directives during a crisis.
In 1976, for example, President Gerald Ford embarked on an ambitious plan to vaccinate “every man, woman, and child in the United States” against a worrisome strain of swine flu. Ford made sure to be photographed receiving the vaccination himself, but most Americans did not follow suit. Only about a quarter of the population went along with the presidential directive, which was canceled a few months later when the vaccine was linked to cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome.
Why did so many Americans buck Ford’s inoculation program? One reason may have been the loss of presidential credibility following Richard Nixon’s resignation, which propelled Ford into the office. Luckily, that swine-flu strain was not as deadly as feared. But if a more virulent pathogen requiring mass vaccination were to emerge, would Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump have trouble persuading most Americans to follow instructions?
Another vital aspect of crisis leadership is obtaining the facts before speaking and choosing words carefully—both areas where Mr. Trump struggles. During a disaster words that are insufficiently measured could cause panic or confusion. During another swine-flu outbreak in 2009, Vice President Joe Biden said on the “Today” show that he “would tell members of my family, and I have, I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now.” It was a careless statement that threatened to drive people away from air travel and public transportation. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had to walk back the remarks.
In the early stages of a crisis, the wisest approach might be to say nothing. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush was confronted with a press corps eager for details on what had occurred and what would happen next. But conflicting stories were rampant and confusion still reigned. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer held up a makeshift sign for the president, not visible to reporters, with the words “DON’T SAY ANYTHING YET.”
Supporters of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump might disagree with this assessment of their flaws. They might point out the candidates’ strengths as well. Mr. Trump’s trip to flood-ravaged Louisiana in August showed that he understands the importance of making common cause with those affected by a natural disaster. It was reminiscent of his conduct during Hurricane Sandy four years ago, when he opened the atrium of Trump Tower, serving coffee and food to storm-weary New Yorkers.
Mr. Trump also has shown optimism in responding to disasters. After 9/11, he said “we have to rebuild in some form that will be just as majestic as the World Trade Center.” In 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig was still spewing into the Gulf of Mexico, Mr. Trump called the White House to offer assistance, according to David Axelrod’s book, “Believer.” He writes that Mr. Trump said: “That admiral you have down there running this leak operation seems like a nice guy, but he doesn’t know what he’s doing. I know how to run big projects. Put me in charge of this thing, and I’ll get that leak shut down and the damage repaired.”
What about Mrs. Clinton? As one of New York’s senators during 9/11, she took a tough stance after the attack, sounding somewhat like George W. Bush. “Every nation has to be either with us or against us,” she told Dan Rather. “Those who harbor terrorists, or who finance them, are going to pay a price.” She also helped secure $11 billion in federal disaster funds for New York.
In a 2008 campaign ad, she coined what has become the shorthand cliché for disaster management: “It’s 3 a.m., and your children are safe and asleep,” the narrator said. “But there’s a phone in the White House and it’s ringing. . . . Your vote will decide who answers that call.” The ad went on to say that Mrs. Clinton was tested, that she already knew the world’s leaders. It’s also true that she has extensive knowledge of the federal government from her time as first lady, senator and secretary of state. This experience might help her navigate the bureaucracy in times of trouble.
The perfect disaster manager would have George Washington’s trustworthiness, Franklin Roosevelt’s or Ronald Reagan’s communication skills and Abraham Lincoln’s steely resolve. Americans are unlikely to get those things after this election, but their importance should not be forgotten. After all, hurricanes and pathogens don’t care which party occupies the White House.
Mr. Troy, a former deputy secretary of Health and Human Services, is the author of “Shall We Wake the President? Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office,” out this month from Lyons Press.