WHILE THERE IS NO REAL POLITICAL playbook when it comes to handling disasters, politicians have been working on it for millennia now. Emperor Titus’s quick response to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius—and the massive fire that consumed much of Rome the following year—earned him approving shout-outs from the ancient press corps.
“In these many great calamities he showed not merely the concern of an emperor, but even a father’s surpassing love, now offering consolation in edicts, and now lending aid so far as his means allowed,” wrote the historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus.
Even unelected monarchs can be dethroned when they whiff on a major catastrophe. Emperor Haile Selassie I’s perceived mismanagement of the Wollo famine led to his overthow in 1974 in a Marxist military coup.
Former Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic saw his hopes for re-election buried along with his city after what was considered a lackluster response to a blizzard. “In the end, God sent us 100 inches of snow in sub-zero weather, and I happened to lose and election because of it,” he would later reflect.
Mr. Bush’s job approval rating plummeted in September 2005, after his administration’s widely criticized response to Katrina—which included the misbegotten Air Force One flyover that led to one of the most damaging photo ops in history. The outcry was perhaps best summed up by rapper Kanye West, who proclaimed during a telethon that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Five years later, in his memoir, Decision Points, Mr. Bush described the post-Katrina criticism from Mr. West and others as an “all time low” in his presidency.
“Emergency and disaster response is one of the most fundamental functions of government at every level,” noted Michael Tobman, a Brooklyn-based political consultant. “If it is bungled, as the Bush administration did with Katrina, it is never forgotten and never overlooked.”