Former President George W. Bush leaves after speaking at the memorial service for Rich DeVos at La Grave Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. (Cory Morse/The Grand Rapids Press via AP)
These days, George W. Bush makes lovable talk show appearances and sits with Ellen DeGeneres at the ballgame.
Yet during his presidency, he was Satan. I know, because I saw it on a bumper sticker once.
Then twice. And hundreds of times more.
But as it turns out, Beelzebub was a pretty nice guy — while in office, he wanted America to be prepared for a pandemic such as this present virus.
In fact, he warned: America needed to formulate a plan.
As reported by ABC News, W. became “obsessed” with the prospect of a paralyzing nationwide illness after reading historian John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza, which detailed 1918’s Spanish Flu epidemic.
That plague killed 17 to 50 million people worldwide.
In the summer of 2005, the President called top homeland security advisor Fran Townsend to the Oval Office.
“You’ve got to read this” he insisted.
“He said, ‘Look, this happens every 100 years. We need a national strategy.’”
Thus was born the nation’s most comprehensive pandemic plan — a playbook that included diagrams for a global early warning system, funding to develop new, rapid vaccine technology, and a robust national stockpile of critical supplies, such as face masks and ventilators, Townsend said.
But after years of work, other issues took precedence:
The effort was intense over the ensuing three years, including exercises where cabinet officials gamed out their responses, but it was not sustained. Large swaths of the ambitious plan were either not fully realized or entirely shelved as other priorities and crises took hold.
However, components of that effort comprise the foundation of our current national response.
Fran notes, “Despite politics, despite changes, when a crisis hits, you pull what you’ve got off the shelf and work from there.”
Initially, she wasn’t so sure about Bush’s idea:
“My reaction was — I’m buried. I’m dealing with counterterrorism. Hurricane season. Wildfires. I’m like, ‘What?’ He said to me, ‘It may not happen on our watch, but the nation needs the plan.’”
And since the nation had experienced 9/11 at that point, the notion of being ready for an unforeseen horror picked up favor among cabinet officials.
Tom Bossert — a staffer in the W. White House who became a homeland security advisor under Trump (and is now an ABC News contributor) — explains:
“There was a realization that it’s no longer fantastical to raise scenarios about planes falling from the sky, or anthrax arriving in the mail. It was not a novel. It was the world we were living.”
As per Tom, George W. was focused:
“He was completely taken by the reality that that was going to happen.”
It gets better; here’s more from ABC:
In a November 2005 speech at the National Institutes of Health, Bush laid out proposals in granular detail — describing with stunning prescience how a pandemic in the United States would unfold. Among those in the audience was Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leader of the current crisis response, who was then and still is now the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“A pandemic is a lot like a forest fire,” Bush said at the time. “If caught early it might be extinguished with limited damage. If allowed to smolder, undetected, it can grow to an inferno that can spread quickly beyond our ability to control it.”
“To respond to a pandemic, we need medical personnel and adequate supplies of equipment,” Bush said. “In a pandemic, everything from syringes to hospital beds, respirators masks and protective equipment would be in short supply.”
Bush told the gathered scientists that they would need to develop a vaccine in record time.
The man was onto something:
“If a pandemic strikes, our country must have a surge capacity in place that will allow us to bring a new vaccine on line quickly and manufacture enough to immunize every American against the pandemic strain.”
Imagine where we’d be now without his vision and commitment.
Bush set out to spend $7 billion building out his plan. His cabinet secretaries urged their staffs to take preparations seriously. The government launched a website, www.pandemicflu.gov, that is still in use today. But as time passed, it became increasingly difficult to justify the continued funding, staffing and attention, Bossert said.
“You need to have annual budget commitment. You need to have institutions that can survive any one administration. And you need to have leadership experience,” Bossert said. “All three of those can be effected by our wonderful and unique form of government in which you transfer power every four years.”
And if you needed more reason to like ol’ W., here is absolute class:
Bush declined, through a spokesman, to comment on the unfolding crisis or discuss the current response.
Fifteen years later, his words still resonate:
“If we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare. And one day many lives could be needlessly lost because we failed to act today.”
Personally, two things I’ve always appreciated about Mr. Bush are his humility and the fact that, when he spoke, I believed he was sincere.
The country could use more leaders about whom that could be said.
And not only was the President sincere; he was seriously right.
Thank you, George W.
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