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Cokie Roberts On The History Of Natural Disasters And Politics


It is common for presidents to visit the scene of a natural disaster, as President Trump did in the Carolinas yesterday. It matters how presidents do that. Think of President George W. Bush, who flew over New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and was much criticized, and later praised his FEMA director on a visit to the storm-damaged Gulf Coast.


GEORGE W. BUSH: And Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job. The FEMA director's working 24...


INSKEEP: That was much criticized by people who thought Michael Brown was not doing a heck of a job. Here to talk about the politics of disaster response through the years is Cokie Roberts, who answers your questions about how politics and the government work.

Hi, Cokie.


INSKEEP: OK. We have questions from the audience, including this about a little-known historical fact.

JOSEPH WILLIAM WINBERRY: My name is Joseph William Winberry, and I live in Knoxville, Tenn. I understand that Grover Cleveland denied federal assistance to disaster victims but didn't suffer many political consequences for it. Such a decision would be unpalatable today. When did it change, and why?


ROBERTS: An educated listener. Cleveland did deny federal help after horrible hurricanes - two of them - in 1893, one slamming into New York City, the other absolutely ravaging Savannah and the Sea Islands. At least 2,000 people were killed, many of them just swept out to sea and never seen again. He had stated his view that federal help was wrong. He had vetoed a bill to help Texas farmers in a drought. And he said that while people support the government, the government shouldn't support the people because it, quote, "weakens the sturdiness of our national character." But he did suffer political consequences. He was so unpopular that the Democrats - his party - denounced him at their next convention. By the way, it was Clara Barton and her fledgling Red Cross that saved the day on the Georgia coast.

INSKEEP: Wow. And that leads to a question about electoral consequences for politicians after a disaster.

LESLIE BONNER: This is Leslie Bonner from Knoxville, Tenn. What does history tell us about the effects a natural disaster has on an upcoming U.S. election cycle?

ROBERTS: Well, it depends on the response. Johnson dramatically went to New Orleans the day after Betsy in 1965, partly because Senator Russell Long told him that it would assure his re-election. But then Vietnam intervened. After his Katrina stumble, Bush's overall approval rating dropped down to 39 percent a month later, and it really never recovered. The Democrats won the House the next year. Obama learned that lesson and was front and center in response to Superstorm Sandy. Seventy percent said they approved of his handling of the disaster. And it was just before the 2012 election, which, of course, he handily won.

INSKEEP: Now, the front-line federal work on disasters belongs to FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And we also have a question about the history of that organization.

ROBERTS: Well, any time you look at the history, that takes you back to the Congressional Act of 1803 when the federal government gave relief to a New Hampshire town after a fire. And there were lots of ad hoc responses to various disasters through the 19th century. And then in the 20th century, a relief arm with one name or another was usually housed in the Executive Office of the President. One summer, I worked for one. It was the Office of Civil and Defense Management (ph). And finally, it became FEMA in the Carter administration and then was put under the Department of Homeland Security after Sept. 11.

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking, the fact that that was in the Executive Office of the President suggests to me that presidents have understood for a very long time that it really politically mattered to them how disasters were handled.

ROBERTS: And they could do it much more hands-on with it in that office. Going to DHS has been something of a problem.

INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks very much.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Commentator Cokie Roberts. You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and the government work by tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie.

(SOUNDBITE OF BERRY WEIGHT'S "YETI'S LAMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.