In early November George W. Bush, struggling to claw his way upward in polls that had acquired the consistency of quicksand after two months of blunders and disasters, launched a new PR blitz. The Administration declared it was taking charge of the nation’s health and security with an all-out war on the flu (to be conducted with vaccines provided by well-connected pharmaceutical companies). “Our country has been given fair warning of this danger to our homeland,” Bush declared. “It’s my responsibility as President to take measures now to protect the American people.”
But if Bush hoped to wipe away the stain of Katrina–and the memory of a hapless Michael Brown steering FEMA in circles while New Orleans drowned–he should have thought twice about bringing up the specter of a public health emergency, because the man responsible for coordinating the federal response to a flu pandemic or bioterror attack could well be the next Michael Brown.
Meet Stewart Simonson. He’s the official charged by Bush with “the protection of the civilian population from acts of bioterrorism and other public health emergencies”–a well-connected, ideological, ambitious Republican with zero public health management or medical expertise, whose previous job was as a corporate lawyer for Amtrak. When Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, recently speculated, “If something comes along that is truly serious…like a major pandemic, you are going to see the ineptitude of this government in a way that will take you back to the Declaration of Independence,” many of those professionally concerned with such scenarios couldn’t help thinking of Simonson. They recalled his own unsettling words at a recent Homeland Security subcommittee hearing on government response to a chemical or biological attack: “We’re learning as we go.”
“Great. What we need in the middle of a crisis is somebody learning on the job at that high level of government,” says Jerry Hauer, Simonson’s immediate predecessor at the Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness (OPHEP) and a veteran public health expert who served as Rudy Giuliani’s director of emergency management from 1996 to 2000.
“If I was in charge, he wouldn’t be in that position,” says Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. “We don’t have the best and brightest in the key positions, and this leaves us in a very, very precarious situation.”
So how is it that Simonson ended up in a position that could impact the lives and health of millions? Simonson’s qualifications can be summed up in two words: Tommy Thompson. Simonson was a protégé of the former Health and Human Services secretary and longtime Republican governor of Wisconsin. Thompson hired him out of the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1995 and put him on the political fast track, eventually naming him as his legal counsel. Thompson then used his influence as chair of Amtrak’s board to place Simonson as the rail service’s corporate counsel. When Bush named Thompson as HHS secretary, Simonson again went with him, and he has been rising through the ranks of the Administration and the Republican Party ever since. “He’s a political hack, a sycophant,” says Ed Garvey, a prominent Wisconsin attorney and the state’s former deputy attorney general. “People just laughed when he was appointed to Amtrak, but when the word came out that he was in charge of bioterrorism, it turned to alarm. When you realize that people’s lives are at stake, it’s frightening. It’s just one of those moments when you say, Oh, my God.”