Would modern crisis management have changed presidential history?

In honor of Presidents Day, let’s consider how today’s best practices for managing a crisis might have helped those men in the White House — and even some elected before there was a White House.

The most obviously applicable? Bill Clinton. Had he detailed the facts early, apologized immediately and taken responsibility for his uncontrolled urges, he probably would have avoided impeachment.

Grover Cleveland had a child out-of-wedlock, a fact revealed by the Buffalo Evening Telegraph in July of the 1884 presidential election. It’s fascinating that the campaign decided “candor” was the best policy and admitted the affair. Cleveland won the election, though that might have been as much because his Republican opponent, former House Speaker James G. Blaine of Maine took bribes in office.

Abraham Lincoln is generally regarded, with George Washington and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as the best president. That’s largely because of the crisis times his presidency covered, including the South’s secession, the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. This demonstrates that every crisis is an opportunity to show leadership and win triumphantly over the grimmest odds.

Ronald Reagan, beloved among recent presidents by so many Republicans, dallied with the convoluted Iran-Contra crisis. He stonewalled, let others take the fall for his decisions, and generally failed to deal with the crisis quickly or factually. His reputation suffered, muddled as it all was at the end by revolving door chiefs of staff and Nancy Reagan‘s foibles.

Washington faced perhaps the greatest crisis of all — though even the least-effective presidents experienced their share. Washington had a pretty sorry collection of ex-colonies to call a nation. So weak was the fledgling that Britain invaded again in 1812. But given the slow, rudimentary communications methods of the time, Washington succeeded in getting the right words out and averting failure.

George W. Bush faced one of the greatest crises of the last 25 years with 9/11. There’s a general consensus that his administration missed key signs leading to it, and he likely overreacted by invading Iraq as well as Afghanistan. The whole WMD mess never rang true. On the other hand, with Osama bin Laden tracked and killed on President Obama’s watch, and no further attacks on American soil, one could also argue Bush’s crisis management succeeded.

Perhaps the most intriguing presidential crisis is also one of the most significant. Richard M. Nixon and Watergate, which ultimately led to his disgraced resignation. Clearly, the man’s paranoid personality led to the Watergate break-in and that personality was completely at odds with any sort of crisis management strategy that called for release of facts, apology and forthright honestly. The cover-up killed the king.

The list goes on. Harry Truman firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur; Roosevelt and Pearl Harbor; Woodrow Wilson and World War I; John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis; Teddy Roosevelt and William McKinley’s assassination; Lyndon B. Johnson and Vietnam.

Playing for the highest stakes, crisis management techniques may wobble in the face of presidential-level crises, but the rules still apply.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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