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The Swine Flu Affair: Decision-Making on a Slippery Disease
Others tell us they said much the same, but one of them remembers thinking (and, he hopes, saying):
There is no way to go back on Sencer’s memo. If we tried to do that, it would leak. That memo's a gun to our head.
Among the things Ford was not warned about were six: trouble with serious side effects, with children's dosages, with liability insurance, with expert opinion, with PHS public relations, and with his own credibility. On the contrary, the vaccine was presumed both safe and efficacious; insurance was not known to be a problem; experts were pronounced on board; Cooper and Sencer could cope with the press. And while the venture’s cost to Ford in public terms was aired nobody raised the opposite, the burden to the program of his sponsorship amidst a problematic fight for the Republican nomination.
These six are the drawbacks that in fact would give the effort the bad name it has today among attentive publics. Some of them may not have been foreseeable, as most of Ford’s aides tell us now. For what it may be worth, we tend to disagree. At least it can be said that signs of each were somewhere to be seen had staffers penetrated far enough. But with agendas of their own, or sitting on the sidelines, or beset by other work, they didn’t.
Hearing what he heard, Ford saw the issue simply. Politics had no part in it. As he recalled when we saw him:
I think you ought to gamble on the side of caution. I would always rather be ahead of the curve than behind it. I had a lot of confidence in Ted Cooper and Dave Mathews. They had kept me informed from the time this was discovered. Now Ted Cooper was advocating an early start on immunization, as fast as we could go, especially in children and old people. So that was what we ought to do, unless there were some major technical objection.
This agrees with what others remember. Some may have been pleased that what was right to do was also politic, one-upping Reagan: Here would be the President, decisive for the public good. Others though were worried by the public risks Ford ran in longer terms. Mathews recalled for us:
I told him that I knew it was a no-win situation for him, and that it wasn’t necessary for him to make the announcement—I said I would do it if he wished me to.
Two of Ford’s aides had talked of this, but Mathews was a weak reed in their eyes and anyway, “we thought he'd punted.” Besides the President seemed quite content, some even thought him eager, to announce a swine flu program as his own and urge public support of it. He evidently thought then, and still does, that this was his plain duty: “If you want to get 216 million people immunized this requires the imprimatur of the White House.” Like Mathews, Cooper, Sencer, Ford may also have had a refreshing sense of doing a direct, uncomplicated, decently heroic deed.
So Mathews’ offer was not pursued. Cooper tells us that he would have been glad, even then, to make the announcement himself. The same can be said of Sencer, who