Presidential Crises

Presidents-in-CrisisTo borrow a Monty Python trope, and now for something entirely different. Usually this blog briefly records my personal observations on current events, but this time I want to discuss those of someone else. Michael K. Bohn has written an insightful and riveting book entitled “Presidents in Crisis: Tough Decisions inside the White House from Truman to Obama.” This is a well-researched insider’s view of how Presidents deal with their inevitable crises. I recommend it unreservedly to anyone interested in our history and how the Presidency actually operates under duress.

Mr. Bohn served as Director of the Situation Room under Ronald Reagan so he knows first-hand how this really works. And make no mistake, what we in the public see is mostly just the results not the difficult and often confusing process by which they are produced. Presidents have to make decisions in the face of conflicting advice and limited or unreliable information. Events usually don’t permit leisurely review. How each President handles this reveals a great deal about them both personally and professionally.

SitRoom

Every President since WWII has endured challenging crises, and of course also before then. However, Mr. Bohn confines his study to the post-war administrations. Truman had the Korean War, Eisenhower faced the 1956 Suez War and the U-2 Incident, Kennedy reaped the whirlwind of the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought us close to nuclear Armageddon, and so on. No President was spared a crisis where his decisions — and his alone — were critical to our nation’s future. Nothing truly prepares one for it. Presidents must draw upon inner resources that hopefully we correctly discern when we elect them.

I want to quote a brief anecdote from the book’s introduction, not because it is representative of the contents but because it illustrates how differently things appear from the inside. These may be important events but after all these are human beings dealing with them.

None of these crises offered much more than an isolated moment or gesture that brought a smile to a participant. However, Henry Kissinger told me one of these rare incidents, which occurred late in the 1973 October War. Washington and Moscow had exchanged serious messages on the Hot Line on October 23 when Israel ignored United Nations cease-fire resolutions in an attempt to capture or neutralize the Egyptian Third Field Army on the Sinai Peninsula. Kissinger called Israeli Ambassador Simcha Dinitz from the White House Situation Room and demanded that Dinitz urge Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to immediately stop the hostilities.

Henry momentarily lost his composure. “Jesus Christ!” he yelled, “Don’t you realize how important this is?” Kissinger quietly listened to Dinitz’s deadpan reply, “Henry, my government might be more persuaded if you invoke the name of a different prophet.”

After reading this book I had two epiphanies. The first is that knowing a great deal about what transpires in world events, as I do as an avid history buff, is not enough to properly evaluate a President’s actions. It is also necessary to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the process too. As a result I have somewhat altered my perception of more than one President. The second is that perhaps anyone who aspires to the Presidency either doesn’t understand the job or has delusions about it that should probably disqualify him. That’s something to consider as we enter the new election cycle, isn’t it?

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