Here is the opening to Alexander Hamilton's Federalist #70:
There is an idea, which is not without its advocates, that a vigorous executive is inconsistent with the genius of republican government. The enlightened well-wishers to this species of government must at least hope that the supposition is destitute of foundation; since they can never admit its truth, without at the same time admitting the condemnation of their own principles. Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government. It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks; it is not less essential to the steady administration of the laws; to the protection of property against those irregular and high-handed combinations which sometimes interrupt the ordinary course of justice; to the security of liberty against the enterprises and assaults of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy. Every man the least conversant in Roman history knows how often that republic was obliged to take refuge in the absolute power of a single man, under the formidable title of dictator, as well against the intrigues of ambitious individuals who aspired to the tyranny, and the seditions of whole classes of the community whose conduct threatened the existence of all government, as against the invasions of external enemies who menaced the conquest and destruction of Rome.
There can be no need, however, to multiply arguments or examples on this head. A feeble executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.
This famous demand for a presidency capable of decisive action echoes through the week of fire in California. As the flames began to spread on Sunday, local and then state government mobilized in a decisive and effective response. When arsonists added to nature's burden, the same cadre of public safety professionals redployed and redployed again the men and machines they had available, and kept the loss of life to a minimum, and greatly reduced the number of homes and business that would have been lost had they stumbled or delayed at the first sign of fire.
After 18 years in southern California and three rounds of fire storms on a scale that is difficult to imagine, I still find myself amazed at how little is the actual damage compared to what would happen in the face of even a slightly less talented team of professionals. The public bryond the region may be a little indifferent to the smooth operation of the fire suppresion effort here. Afetr all, close to 2,000 homes were lost, and the blazes continue to run across some areas even though the Santa Ana winds have disappeared.
It has been and continues to be a massive operation, and it is often working not in a vast expanse of wilderness, but mere yards and sometimes only a few feet away from human dwellings. The thousands of firefighters and hundreds of machines are involved in manuevers that are intricate beyond the ability of a camera or a pen to capture, and the force of the wind and flames they battled defy conventional description, though the people of California are deeply appreciative of their courage and their commitment.
Behind these front line firefighters was a command structure used to issuing quick orders and mandating evacuation or redployment of resources as the circumstances warranted. The first day of the fire crisis contrasted sharply with the hours after the levees broke in New orleans two years ago. Officals did not hesitate, and while the destruction was immense, their collective quick action kept a disaster from becoming epic. County sheriffs worked with county fire chiefs, and the state bureaucracy, led ably bu Arnold, brought support to bear wherever it could as soon as was possible. No doubt mistakes were made, but only of the sort that are inevitable given the scale of the challenge.
All of which goes to show what we already know but which is crucial to remember as the campaign for the White House goes into overdrive: The most improtant aspect of a president's job is that he (or she) be able to handle the demands of genuine crisis with calm and courageous action, that even daunting challenges not cause the knees to buckle or the mind to fog, and that the team the next president assembles be as talented as that working its way through this week's catastrophes in the Golden State.
Not all would-be executives bring the energy or the skills to lead under such circumstances. The next year should be spent asking who do we want at 1600 Pennsylvania whengreat challenges arrive demanding urgent action?