Shall We Wake the President?

Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office

[Amazon Link]

I put this on my to-read list a few years back, for reasons I can no longer remember. But it was available at my new fave booksource, the Portsmouth Public Library, so…

Well, first: caveat lector. (I seem to be saying that a lot lately.) From the title, I assumed this would be mainly a history book. How James Madison handled the Year Without a Summer, for example. And even its Dewey Decimal Number (973.099) is clearly in the US History/Presidents class.

And there's some history, indeed. But it's mainly advice on how various sorts of disasters should be handled, based on key examples from the past, mostly the recent past. And not only handled by US Presidents, but also Joe and Jane Citizen. Past events are classified as handled pretty well (FDR and the Great Depression; Nixon and Hurricane Camille) or botched (Dubya and Katrina; LBJ and late-sixties riots).

Which is fine. Just unexpected. Maybe I should have read the reviews a little more carefully.

Another downside: the author, Tevi Troy, has a writing style I can only classify as "bureaucratic". It's like he's typing a very long ass-covering memo to his boss. (With an unstated bureaucratic premise: "If you don't follow this advice, woe betide you. When the shit goes down, I won't be blamed, I'll have a paper trail.")

After that, the book is mainly notable for detailing all the different ways natural and man-made disasters can strike. Natural: pandemics, climate, vulcanism, earthquake. Man-made: economic collapse; terrorism, including cyberterrorism and bioterrorism; civil unrest; attacks on the power grid. Egads.

And as far as advice goes, Troy gets pretty far down in the weeds. Like how to wash your hands effectively. (Hot water, plenty of soap, and keep at it long enough to sing "Happy Birthday" twice.)

What I didn't know: Woodrow Wilson was an even worse president than I thought. His sin here: not stopping US troop transports during the Spanish Flu pandemic, near the end of WWI, causing (Troy claims) a "great many" additional deaths. Troy also raises the possibility that Wilson's serious health issues when he traveled to Europe for treaty negotiations could have been caused by Spanish Flu, not the stroke more conventional historians blame. In any case, the negotiations were disastrous, a primary eventual cause of World War II, and Wilson's health issues were at the core of that. Sheesh.