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The Swine Flu Affair: Decision-Making on a Slippery Disease
The coincidence of titles infuriated Sencer, but he seems not to have been the target of the tactic. This, rather, was the Secretary, who as Cooper’s aides recall showed an uncharacteristic (and to them a quite unrealistic) interest in the running of the swine flu program.
Mathews had been energized by Ford, who looked to him for action. Besides, the swine flu program seemed to him a proper task, unlike so much of what his department did. Much of HEW left him cold. He was a believer in the states and a university administrator. Also, he considered it the Secretary's role to be a gap-filler, a “defensive secondary,” becoming active only when the roles of none of his subordinates were wide enough. Sencer covered only CDC while Cooper added NIAID and BoB, but not the General Counsel (OGC) or others.
As we piece it together from associates (Mathews himself has less precise recollections), in the first days after March 15, he encouraged Jack Young, HEW’s comptroller, to help Dickson design a swine flu organization. This would function under a departmentwide committee meeting daily. Young was a NASA alumnus from the moon-shot days. He and Dickson may have suspected what was coming at them operationally. Young’s organization chart had certain interesting features, among them a place for program review, another for media relations. But Cooper would have none of it. No new organization could be built in time, “Flu season would have come and gone.” In this he had concurrence from a crucial ally, with whom on other subjects he had often tangled horns, the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, William Morrill, known in PHS as the Department's "other strong man." Cooper also thought—and Morrill seems to have agreed—that a committee under Mathews’ wing would be a hopeless case and a committee meeting daily an abomination. Feeling responsible, welcoming the challenge, Cooper saw himself in charge, at least as much attracted to the task as Mathews and better equipped to do it.
Cooper’s problem then was to keep Mathews at bay. Dickson was loyal and shut up. Young had no personal stake. Morrill was accommodating. The departmental committee, which soon started to meet weekly, then less frequently, never worked as Mathews wanted. And Meriwether was announced as Program Manager. A program with a manager is, ipso facto, organized.
Mathews went along, never having thought to run the thing alone, or without Cooper, and in no shape to hold out against him. As one of Mathews' aides told us:
Coming in only a year before the Republican Convention, that late in the Administration, we had no troops with which to challenge the “health division.” To have had any chance of doing that, we’d have had to strip the University of Alabama clean of all Mathews’ cadre of experienced assistants. We couldn't do that!
For his part, Sencer had been quite prepared to do it all through CDC, with NIAID and BoB and anybody else coordinated by Millar or by himself for working purposes. He would gladly have left it as Cooper’s task—and Mathews’ for that matter—to back them up. “The trouble was,” Sencer commented to us, “that Cooper was looking for work; he had nothing much else to do …. That Administration had stifled all initiatives.