October 28, 2021
This interview with Tevi Troy, Ph.D. was conducted on September 14, 2021 by Gary Bisbee, Ph.D., MBA.
The full interview appears on The Gary Bisbee Show, and it can be viewed on YouTube or heard on your favorite podcast platform including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher and Spotify.
What was life like growing up?
I grew up in Queens, New York in the 1970s, which was a challenging period for the United States. There were a lot of depressing attitudes and people felt things weren’t going well: we were having some foreign policy challenges and the economy was shaky. There seemed to be so much negativity, whereas I had such a positive feeling about the United States. It was a haven. All of my relatives had come from Europe, if they had stayed in Europe, they would have died. I saw America as a beacon of light and I wanted to see if there was a way we could make things better. I seized on policy as a way to make that happen.
You are a prolific author: four books, over 300 articles, in places like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. When did your interest in writing develop?
I would point that to my earliest days at the American Enterprise Institute, I was working for a guy named Ben Wattenberg, who had been a speechwriter for Lyndon Johnson. The way he got the attention of the Johnson White House was by writing a best-selling book about demographics in the census. When I worked for him, he had a weekly column that was read by hundreds of thousands of people and also a monthly column in US News and World Report. It occurred to me that writing is a way to help influence policy and influence perceptions. I knew early on that if you want to have an influence, and you want to have an impact, writing is an important way to do it.
How do you select your book topics?
I realized that I was in a unique position of being a trained presidential historian who had also served at high levels in the White House. I realized that gave me a comparative advantage in writing about the presidency and it’s something I have a great interest in.
I try and think about something that nobody has covered earlier. With my book about pop culture, nobody had really written a book about the various pop culture influences on the president, whether it’s reading, TV, movies, theater, and now social media. In my most recent book, Fight House, nobody had written a book about rivalries in the White House across multiple administrations. I try to find untrodden ground, which is hard to do because there have been 1000s of books written about the presidency. I try to find something that nobody’s covered before and then step into the breach.
What are the key aspects of how a president should handle a crisis?
The first thing to know is that how a president responds to crisis on his or her watch will shape their perception for all time and throughout history. When a crisis comes, the President has to know that it’s time to step up. That is complicated by the fact that a president doesn’t go and rescue people who are stuck in a flood and a president doesn’t develop the vaccine on his own and the president doesn’t stop the floodwaters. What the President can do is provide leadership and information at key moments and also direct the resources of the United States government in order to allow for an appropriate response.
You do a lot of speaking about your writing, what are people most interested in?
Early in my career when I was in the White House, I’d give a speech, talking in great depth about the policies we were pursuing. I noticed the audiences were a little bored. And then you tell some stories about the president and people just liven up, got so much more interested. I’ve shaped my speaking on that experience going forward. People love stories, especially if you have direct, personal interactions with the president, which I’ve been fortunate to have been in the room with or met all of the last seven presidents. Obviously the most experience was with George W. Bush. I think it’s that ability to tell stories about what happened that can make things more relatable and more interesting than just reading dry policy.
What Advice do you have for early-stage leaders?
My number one advice is read. Read, read, read. There’s so much out there where you can get specific, precise information and experiences in whatever field you are in. Go out and take advantage of it. Then, once you read, you also have to absorb. You can’t just read things and say “I read that, that’s interesting,” but not absorb it into your leadership style. You’ve got to take the external inputs you’re getting, whether it’s reading or feedback from the people on your team, and incorporate it in your leadership, so you can constantly improve. If you stay inert, if you don’t improve things, you’re not going to get better as a leader and you’re not going to provide the best results.
Gary Bisbee 00:48
From a young age, Dr. Tevi Troy saw America as a beacon of hope in the world, and pursued policy as a way to make things even better. We discussed Tevi’s career in government as a member of President George Bush’s transition team, a deputy secretary in HHS, and Acting Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy. A prolific writer with four books and over 300 articles, Tevi shared his inspiration for writing. He believes that writing is a powerful tool to influence policy and public perceptions, as well as make a name for yourself in the political arena. Tevi’s books analyzed presidencies. He shared humorous anecdotes of past presidents to showcase the power of stories. We covered how crises such as COVID-19 impact presidential legacies, as described in one of his books, “Shall We Wake the President?” and touched on his most recent book, “Fight House”, about rivalries in presidential administrations. Tevi’s advice for young leaders is to read, not just read for the sake of it, but to incorporate the concepts and skills into your leadership style.
Gary Bisbee 01:59
Well, good afternoon, Tevi, and welcome.
Tevi Troy 02:02
Thanks for having me. It’s good to see you, Gary.
Gary Bisbee 02:04
We’re pleased to have you at this microphone. And you’ve certainly been a leader in your background, Tevi, being Deputy Secretary of HHS and Acting Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, as well as your writings, which have been about presidents and leadership. So we’re eager to spend a few moments with you today. Why don’t we look at your early years and just see if we can figure out how you’ve developed your interests? What was life like growing up for you Tevi?
Tevi Troy 02:34
Well, I grew up in Queens, New York in the 1970s, which, as now, was a challenging period for the United States. There was a lot of depressing attitudes and people felt that things weren’t going well in the country. And we were having some foreign policy challenges and the economy was shaky. So I looked around and I said, wow, you know, there seems to be so much negativity, whereas I had such a positive feeling about the United States and the fact that it was a haven. All of my relatives had come from Europe. If they had stayed in Europe, they would have died. So I just saw America as a beacon of light and hope and I wanted to see if there was a way we can make things better. And I kind of seized on policy as a way to perhaps make that happen.
Gary Bisbee 03:15
What did the young Tevi think about leadership?
Tevi Troy 03:18
Oh, I don’t know, I was big into sports. And I was interested in the leadership styles of various coaches. Billy Martin was frequently the manager of the Yankees, and then not the manager of the Yankees, and then manager of the Yankees again. But, he had an interesting leadership style because he was inspirational. And for the first year, whenever he came to a team, that team would improve. It happened so many times, it’s just not statistical anomaly. Now, over time, I guess his methods didn’t persist because maybe the initial boost he gave or the adrenaline push, or whatever it was, kind of reverted to the mean. But initially, he inspired his teams. And that kind of inspired me as well to look at leadership as a way to get better performance out of people who weren’t performing at the level they could be.
Gary Bisbee 04:03
Well, what about your parents? Does your leadership style at all reflect your parents, Tevi?
Tevi Troy 04:09
Yeah, it’s a good question. Both my parents taught in the New York City school system. My dad was a history teacher and that helps account for my love of history. My dad was kind of a strong, silent type. He wasn’t very vocal. If you’re in a room with a lot of people, he didn’t speak up more than other people. When he did speak up, it was with authority. My mom was a guidance counselor and a reading teacher. And she was much more of a chatterbox. She unfortunately passed away about a year and a half ago. And she was, she was kind of one of these people with street wisdom. She always told us what the right way to behave was. She had high levels of expectation, and she kind of had the pulse of the common man. And her politics, both my parents were teacher union Democrats, but they kind of fit in the category of Reagan Democrats in that they were part of that urban ethnic grouping that saw that some of the excesses of the Left were a little too much and were not getting good results. And so I think that helped develop my political sense as well.
Gary Bisbee 05:09
Do you remember your first leadership experience where, at the end of it, you said, I understand this is leadership and I’m interested in that?
Tevi Troy 05:18
Yeah, I mean, there were a couple of things like that. I mean, one is I was the president of my local youth group as a kid, and, you know, there were stupid teenage disagreements, and, you know, you had to get the entire group united. And I think that was part of it. But I also would point to my earliest days in government, I was still pretty young, when I worked on the transition team in the Bush 2000 post after that election, and I went to the Department of Labor, again, very early 30s, I was deputy head of the transition team and then Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, and really had to try and help shape an agenda, which is kind of a heady thing for somebody in their early 30s, to try to figure out how to develop an agenda that the Secretary of Labor and then the President of the United States would want carried out.
Gary Bisbee 06:07
Sounds like you were interested in politics early on, when did health care kind of factor in as an interest?
Tevi Troy 06:13
I was always interested in policy. My first job in Washington was at the American Enterprise Institute and my first job on Capitol Hill was as the senior domestic policy adviser to the Republican leadership in Congress. And if you look at domestic policy, the vast majority of it is healthcare and the bulk of the dollars and the bulk of the effect on individuals. And so I learned pretty quickly that you really needed to be up to speed on healthcare, and that was something that definitely was accelerated. By the time I was domestic policy advisor in the White House, healthcare was taking up the majority of my time and the FDA alone was taking up over a quarter of my time. So I realized that the need to focus and hone in on healthcare was an important one.
Gary Bisbee 06:56
You’re a prolific author, four books, over 300 articles in places like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. When did your interest in writing develop, Tevi?
Tevi Troy 07:06
I would say the interest in writing dates back to my time at the American Enterprise Institute. I worked for a guy named Ben Wattenberg, who had been a speech writer for Lyndon Johnson. And the way he came to the attention of the Johnson White House was via his writing, he’d written a best selling book about demographics that caught their eye. And then later, when I worked for him, he did have a weekly column, he had multiple books that he put out. He had a monthly column for US News and World Report, which is a big deal at the time. And he was able to shape and influence policy via his writing. I remember, when I was working for him, he wrote something about values and how important they were, and President of the United States, Bill Clinton, called him to discuss his interest in values and their shared interest in values in politics. So I realized that writing can help you, A, make a name for yoursel, but B, also help you influence policy. And so I was determined, after my time at American Enterprise Institute to get an advanced degree to get Ph,D,, but also to write as a way to establish myself in the political arena.
Gary Bisbee 08:06
Your books have been largely about presidencies. The articles you’ve written have been somewhat broader. Obviously, you spent time at the White House. Is that what influenced your writing about presidencies or are you just happen to be interested in it?
Tevi Troy 08:21
I would say neither actually, in that, I got my Ph.D. at University of Texas and I focused on presidential studies. And my mentor there was a woman named Elspeth Rostow, who was an expert in the presidency. But she was also the wife of Walt Rostow, who was the National Security Adviser to both Kennedy and Johnson. So she had a wealth of information and knowledge and experience with the White House and I learned a ton about the presidency from her. And the first book I ever wrote, even before I ever worked at the White House was called “Intellectuals and the American Presidency”. Then after I served in the White House, I took a writing hiatus for pretty much those 13 years when I was in government, afterwards, I realized that I was in a unique position of being a trained presidential historian who had also served at high levels in the White House. And the only other person who really fits that bill is someone who’s a historian who also worked at the White House at a high level, Arthur Schlesinger. I’m not trying to compare myself to him, but he is a model and a hero of mine. And I realized that gave me a comparative advantage in writing about the presidency. And it’s something I have a great interest in. So I think that’s what brought it out. And our mutual friend, Don Trigg, actually said to me, after I’d written two books on the presidency, I started writing a third book on disasters. And he said, you know, presidents is your brand, why don’t you get presidents in there? And that’s how my third book became presidents and disasters.
Gary Bisbee 08:24
You’ve written about social media, these crisis or disasters, intellectuals. How do you select your topics. Tevi?
Tevi Troy 09:47
Yeah, so I think a lot about the presidency and I try and think about something that nobody has covered earlier. So with intellectuals, nobody had really written a book about how intellectuals shaped the White House. With my book about pop culture, nobody had really written book about what all the various pop culture influences on the president, whether it’s reading or TV or movies or theater, and now social media. And so nobody had covered that ground before. Nobody had done a book on presidents and disasters. And then my most recent book, “Fight House”, nobody had written a book about rivalries in the White House across multiple administrations to talk about, kind of level set, what you see in rivalries in the White House. You might have had someone write about rivalries in an individual administration. Obviously, Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote her book, “Team of Rivals”, but that was about one administration, it was actually about cabinet rivals, not about people on the White House staff. So I try and find untrodden ground, which is hard to do because there have been thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of books written about the presidency, but I try to find something that nobody’s covered before and then step into the breach.
Gary Bisbee 10:48
The longitudinal nature of your of your writings, and your insights is really interesting. One of your books covered the history of the White House as we know it today. Could you review that for us? I found that to be tremendously interesting.
Tevi Troy 11:03
When you think about the presidency, the people who served the President in the 19th century, were his Cabinet Secretaries. They were the presidential aides at the time. And it’s really only in the 20th century, mid 20th century, that you start to have a White House staff developing. And once you have a White House staff developed, then you have all kinds of rivalries, you have room to bring in intellectuals. And that’s…it’s the structure of the White House and the changing nature of the White House and how much power the President has and how much staff they have, that allows these new topics to emerge, like rivalries inside the White House or intellectuals serving the president in a direct capacity, not in the Cabinet. And so it was necessitated to cover that if I wanted to cover how it came to be that we had all these rivalries in the White House or how it came to be that we had intellectual advisors to the President.
Gary Bisbee 11:56
Some people think that the Office of the Presidency, the staff and so on, has grown too large. What say you about that, Tevi?
Tevi Troy 12:04
Well, I think it’s just linked to the size of government. I would agree that government is too large and covers too many things and spends too much money and spends too much money without bringing in sufficient revenue for that money, which is why we have well over $20 trillion, approaching $30 trillion, in debt. But if you are going to have a large presidency, and you are going to cover all these things, then you need a president who has tentacles, as it were, who has arms and legs, who can cover the vast gamut of things that presidents do. So you can’t have an enormous government and a small White House staff. It just doesn’t work. So as long as we’re going to have an enormous government, we need to have a relatively robust White House staff in order to help the President cover all the things he has to cover.
Gary Bisbee 12:45
What favorite stories do you have in all your writings, favorite stories about presidents, a really positive decision, or one that’s maybe not so positive?
Tevi Troy 12:55
Wow, there’s so many, I mean, I think what I’ve really become as a storyteller about presidents, but I think I realized early on, especially in writing my second book about presidents and pop culture, there were just things that people didn’t know about presidents that would really shape or change the perception that people have of presidents. So for example, when I learned that Jimmy Carter had watched 480 movies in his single term as President, I knew that was gold. I knew that was something that I could work with and use. Similarly, Woodrow Wilson saw about 250 plays as President. So it just showed that, outside of all the various things that they were working on and their huge amounts of responsibilities as president, they also had these outside interests, and that really shapes the perception of who they are. So I think that was good. But then sometimes you just find things that are amusing. I wrote a piece for Washingtonian a couple of months ago about presidents and toilets because there’s so many great stories about things that happened in the privy, as it were, including Lyndon Johnson used to bark out orders to his aides while he was sitting on the toilet, which is not necessarily a management style. I would advocate, but it’s what he used to do.
Gary Bisbee 14:07
Well, “Shall We Wake the President?”, of course, is a classic title and very interesting book about crisis. I think you focus on disasters, too, but it’s crisis. And of course, we’ve just gone through and are in Coronavirus, and that clearly affected the Trump administration, now it’s affecting the Biden administration. Trump didn’t really know that was coming and all of a sudden, wham. How does a President actually react to a crisis like Coronavirus?
Tevi Troy 14:37
So the first thing to know is that how a president responds to the crises on his or her watch will shape their perception for all time and throughout history. So when a crisis comes, a president has to know that it’s time to step up and it’s a time to perform. Now, that is complicated by the fact that a president doesn’t go and rescue people who are stuck in a flood, and a president doesn’t develop the vaccine on his own, and a president doesn’t stop the floodwaters. I mean, there’s all kinds of things, that I guess we have unrealistic expectations of what the President does or can do. What the President can do is provide leadership and information at key moments and also direct the resources of the United States government in order to allow for an appropriate response. And I think the President needs to look at what they do in that context. So on the Trump administration, and the Coronavirus, I think that they did some things well, and some things poorly. I think, for example, on the communications front and trying to alleviate panic and give accurate, timely information, they did a terrible job. I mean, the whole stuff about bleach and all the ridiculous fights about masks, and then the hydroxychloroquine, when there were all kinds of things that were unnecessary stats or arguments that the Trump administration got involved in, that I think, hurt both the credibility, but also the ability to convey information to the American public. At the same time, I think Operation Warp Speed, which helped develop the vaccine only nine months was a huge and groundbreaking achievement. So as with everything in the Trump administration, you have people saying, well, he did A, which is horrible, and other people say he did B, which is great. And it’s that contrast that continues to define Trump in every aspect of his presidency.
Gary Bisbee 16:26
Well, if you’re writing a book 10 years from now about a topic that includes Trump, what’s his legacy going to be? Will it be Operation Warp Speed? Will it be this poor communication? Or as you’re suggesting, will it just continue to be both?
Tevi Troy 16:43
The fact is that historians, for the most part, determine a president’s reputation and historians generally tend to be a pretty liberal bunch. So I think Trump is going to be trashed in the history books. But in the minds of the American people, I think you’re going to have this dichotomy where some people think he was the worst thing and hate everything he did. And other people overlook any bad things he did and think he was fantastic. And it just seemed to me, with every aspect of the presidency, that split came into being and so I think that’s what’s gonna continue to define his legacy.
Gary Bisbee 17:13
So the Biden administration comes in with Coronavirus already underway. How does the President think about basically a crisis situation that’s been ongoing is going to continue to exist during his or her presidency?
Tevi Troy 17:28
Yeah, it’s really hard in this situation because they came in, there was a vaccine, there was a sense that maybe things will start to recede, and things did improve initially because of the vaccine, and then you had Delta and breakthrough cases. And it seems to have flared up again, in a way that I think will be problematic for Biden just in dealing with things but also for his legacy. So the vaccine is not the easy answer that it was initially. Now that said, I’m a big fan of the vaccine. I’m an advocate of vaccines. I think if more people took the vaccine, we’d have fewer severe cases of Delta. And so I urge people to take the vaccine. But it is true that the emergence of Delta and the breakthrough infections, plus the persistent level of people are unvaccinated who are getting severe cases and in some cases, unfortunately, dying. I think that just makes it harder to deal with.
Gary Bisbee 18:19
You laid out an episode with Reagan and the press made an issue about that. And I think your point was, since then, the press is highly attuned to, is the President awake in any given crisis. Can you relate that story for us Tevi?
Tevi Troy 18:36
Yeah, it’s a an incident early on in the Reagan presidency, when to US F-14 fighter jets took down two Soviet MiG jets that were run by the Libyan government. And it was kind of a big deal. And you really didn’t have a lot of dogfights between the F-14 and the MiGs. And Ed Meese, who was the counselor to the President chose not to wake him up initially until he got more information. He did wake him up later that night, once they had additional information, but someone in the press asked, “did you wake up the president immediately?” The answer was no. And there was a lot of pushback against me for that unfairly, I think, A, because he was correctly trying to get more information, B, because Nancy Reagan had put such a premium on making sure President Reagan got enough time to sleep. In fact, she used to encourage him to take naps and she would say “I want you horizontal”, which kind of a joke among White House staffers. But, Meese’s rivals within the White House staff, including Jim Baker, who was the Chief of Staff, and Mike Deaver, who was the Deputy Chief of Staff, they use this incident to kind of diminish Meese’s Power and actually take away national security issues from his portfolio. So I think that was part of the backdrop of what was going on. And then that obviously led to every subsequent President being seen through this lens of, did you wake him up for this thing. And so even something like Barack Obama winning the Nobel Prize, he was awakened by his staff like five or six A.M., to be told he’d won the Nobel Peace Prize. And, to be fair to Obama, he was kind of as befuddled by it as everyone else because, if you recall, he won it in 2009, when he had just become president, he really hadn’t done anything good or ill at the time. And so it was kind of seen as a bit of a joke that the Nobel Committee hated Bush so much and liked Obama’s existence so much that they gave him the Nobel Prize for just not being Bush.
Gary Bisbee 20:33
You can’t make it up sometimes, Tevi. What do you think about a situation where Biden has not been president for long? He’s got to deal with the Coronavirus situation. Obviously, the pullout from Afghanistan has created some tension. When it happens that early in your career in a White House, how do you adjust to that, iIn Biden’s case, over the next three years or so? Is there anything you can do to try to soften some of these things that happened early in your career?
Tevi Troy 21:05
Yeah, that’s a good question because there have been presidents who have faced crises or mistakes early on in their first years. Herbert Hoover, for example, the stock market crashed in his first year, Kennedy had the Bay of Pigs in his first year. So it’s not unusual for a president to face a crisis early. The question is how you deal with it. And Hoover did a pretty poor job in terms of how to communicate about the depression, the worsening depression, and he kept saying the worst is over, we’re going to recover. And it just wasn’t accurate. Kennedy actually reshaped his national security apparatus and his decision making process in the wake of Bay of Pigs and I think got better results going forward. So you have to be willing to make adjustments and admit that things went wrong if you’re going to be successful going forward.
Gary Bisbee 21:50
You referred to communications a number of times today, who was the best communicator among presidents?
Tevi Troy 21:57
I think I’d give that one to Ronald Reagan, given that his nickname was the great communicator. I remember reading a staff memoir when I talked about Reagan, he always hit his marks. He’s a former actor, he knew what to do. He knew how to say the right things to the American people at the right time. And there’s a great story where he and Nancy Reagan are in, I believe, the Map Room while Reagan is recording a spot. And Nancy Reagan keeps saying, “do it this way, Ronnie, do it that way”, keeps challenging him on how he’s doing it. And he looks at her, being being a former actor, and said to her, “you know, Nancy, I have done this before”. And she was all kind of angry and left the room. So I think Reagan was a great communicator. And the reason I think Reagan was such a great communicator is because he did have that hostility from the press. And he knew how to overcome it, how to get directly to the ears and the eyes of the American people in a way that they would see what he was doing. And I think that the need to have to overcome that bias against him, I think, really adds to his record in that regard.
Gary Bisbee 22:52
Tevi, I know you do a lot of speaking to groups about your books and your articles. What kind of questions continue to surface from groups when you go out? What are they most interested in? Is it the personal stories of the presidents or is it policies? Where do you find they’re the most interested?
Tevi Troy 23:13
Yeah, that’s a good question. Early on in my career, when I was in the White House and I’d give a speech, I started talking in great depth about the policies we’re pursuing. And I noticed the audiences were a little bored. And then you tell some stories about the president. And people just liven up, and they got so much more interested. And I’ve shaped my speaking on that experience going forward. And people just love stories, especially if you have direct personal interaction with the President, which I’ve been fortunate to have been in the room with or met. I think, all of the last seven Presidents, now obviously the most experience with George W. Bush. And I think it’s that ability to tell stories about what happened that can make things more relatable and more interesting than just reading dry policy.
Gary Bisbee 23:55
Of your four books, Tevi, which is the one that is your favorite?
Tevi Troy 24:00
My favorite is my most recent “Fight House”. And I’m not saying that because it’s my most recent, but I think because I get better at this as I age and have more practice with it. I think this book is just crackling, “Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump” is just filled with crackling good stories about nasty, nasty things that people did to one another in the White House in the pursuit of more power, more attention, more policy victories. And I just think that every chapter is a winner in that book. So I urge people to go out and buy “Fight House” because it’s, you know, I like all my books, but that one’s my favorite.
Gary Bisbee 24:33
It’s absolutely timely and a very good one. I agree with that. What’s left on your professional bucket list, Tevi, you certainly accomplished a lot to this point.
Tevi Troy 24:43
Yeah, I was talking to somebody about this the other day. I really like to do two things. I like to write books and do disruptive things in healthcare. So I like to advise companies that are trying to come up with disruptive ways of changing the healthcare system and improving things and, you know, to the extent that I can be paid for that kind of advice, it subsidizes my book writing, which isn’t the most lucrative thing in the world.
Gary Bisbee 25:07
Tevi, this has been a terrific interview. We absolutely appreciate your time. I have one last question if I could. And that is for members of our audience who are early stage leaders, early stage of their career, what advice would you have about leadership?
Tevi Troy 25:23
My number one advice is read, read, read, read. There’s so much out there where you can get specific, precise information and experiences in whatever field you are in. I think you should just go out and take advantage of it. And then the other thing is, once you read, you also have to absorb. You can’t just read things and say, oh, I read that, that’s interesting, but not absorb it into your leadership style. So you’ve got to take the external inputs you’re getting, whether it’s reading or feedback from the people on your team, you’ve got to use that and incorporate it in your leadership so you can constantly improve because if you just stay where you are, if you just stay inert, if you don’t improve things, you’re just not going to get better as a leader and not going to provide the best results.
Gary Bisbee 26:06
Great advice, Tevi. Thanks again, I enjoyed it very much and we appreciate your time.
Tevi Troy 26:13