What is your fondest memory from your time working in the Bush Administration?

When I first joined the White House staff, Chief of Staff Andy Card gave me some fantastic advice: share the privilege of working in the White House with your friends and family. It’s always smart to listen to Secretary Card, and this time was no exception. While working in the White House, I took dozens of friends and family members to the White House Mess, to the White House gift shop before the holidays, to the President’s box at the Kennedy Center, to White House holiday parties, to West Wing tours, and, when I had the privilege, to play tennis on the White House tennis courts. Doing so allowed me to stay connected with friends while enduring a challenging White House schedule, to stay grounded by talking to people who knew me before I worked at the White House, and to generate once-in-a-lifetime memories with people who still start conversations with me by saying things like, “Remember that time we played on the White House tennis courts?” One year, I took my mother-in-law with me to the White House Hanukah party and introduced her to President and Mrs. Bush. President Bush looked at me hard and said, “You brought your mother-in-law with you as your date? [long pause] Good move.” He was right: it was. 

Your new book, "Shall We Wake the President? Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office" came out earlier this fall. In researching the book, which examines presidential management of disasters and crises, did you find any commonalities between the presidents who handled disasters most, or least, effectively?

Yes, presidents who are best at handling crises are those who address them straight on, who are honest with the American people about the extent of the challenge in question, and who communicate well with the American people. Crises are troubling, and presidents often have to ask the American people to do difficult things, such as evacuate, or take a new vaccine. The presidents who have credibility with the American people can make such difficult requests. One other thing that presidents who are good at handling crises do is plan ahead. After President Bush read the book The Great Influenza about the 1918 flu that killed 675,000 Americans, he demanded that we come up with a plan to protect Americans against a flu pandemic. I worked on that plan at the White House and at HHS, and when the 2009 Swine Flu came out during the Obama administration, they deployed that plan, and fewer people ended up dying in that year from flu than die in an average year.

In 2013, you published What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted, which looked at pop culture in the White House. Since its publication, we’ve seen the rise of Snapchat and other ephemeral social media. How do you think this new type of medium will affect the historical record?

New media are both a constant challenge and a constant opportunity for historians. I wrote a piece in the Observer recently explaining why twitter is a biographer’s best friend, especially if the tweets are not ghost-written by aides. Looking at a timeline gives one insight into the thought process of a person at a level heretofore unimagined, even if you had access to a diary. A diary is written once a day, or sometimes even less frequently. A twitter stream, in contrast, is constant. But twitter also raises challenges. Did the person really write the tweet, and did they really mean what they wrote?  Similarly, email creates a record, which is helpful, but it also make people wary. When I served in the White House, my most frequently sent email was, “Let’s discuss.” All new media going forward will present similar challenges and opportunities for historians. The available material will be so much greater, but the need for good judgment to determine what nuggets are worthwhile gets harder all the time.

Today, you serve as CEO of the American Health Policy Institute, where you’ve dedicated much of your time to navigating the impact and implications of the Affordable Care Act for America’s employers. What ACA-related opportunities or challenges strike you as the most immediate for the next Administration and Congress?

Employer sponsored health care covers 177 million Americans, both employees and dependents. Unfortunately, the Affordable Care Act did not look to build upon this crucial part of our health care system but instead made it more difficult. By imposing new costs and taxes on employers, the ACA made employer sponsored care more expensive, while also driving up premiums for everyone else as well – unless you were one of the people getting ACA subsidies. With the election of a GOP Congress and president, we now have an opportunity to fix the problems caused by the ACA. The way to do this is not by trying to offer subsidies to even more people, but to drive down the cost of health care and thereby incentivize people to purchase health care on their own. There are a lot of good conservative health policy ideas out there – many of which we advanced or recommended during the Bush administration – and I am looking forward to the opportunity to seeing many of them get implemented in the months ahead. 

What is your proudest moment from your years in the Administration?

So many come to mind that it is hard to pick one. I was proudest of all to have an opportunity to serve this great county to which I am so grateful; proud to serve under a president who always had the country’s best interests at heart; and proud to promote good policies in the areas of health, education, labor, and the rest of the domestic policy arena. Overall, though, I would have to say I take the most pride in improving the preparedness of the U. S. to deal with a terror attack or some kind of pandemic outbreak. The president’s primary responsibility is to protect the American people, and I am confident that we left the country better protected, and less vulnerable, as a result of President Bush’s leadership. Writing my recent book on presidents and disasters – Shall We Wake the President? Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office – was a happy reminder for me of all the good that the administration accomplished on that important front.