Saturday, September 10, 2005

 

WWRD: What Would Reagan Do?

The First Lady calls charges of a racial blindness in the administration's handling of the problem, "disgusting." Indeed, they may be. However, they arise partly because the president and his advisers failed to see, speak and act as if a calamity was happening to a major American city.

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. The major problem facing the Bush administration is whether it can on-the-fly fill the political vacuum created by its initial response to Hurricane Katrina. Tomorrow, the president will again visit the Gulf Coast region (following Vice President Cheney's own trip there).

Whether this third visit will help, the political damage may have already been done -- as the saying goes, "you never get a second chance to make a first impression." There is a reason why some of the president's strongest supporters were aghast at his first speech back in Washington
addressing the situation. With a bland laundry list and a seeming lack of empathy, the president acted more like a generic politician.

The institutional symbolism imbued in the office of the presidency is of such great power that the words produced from that office can convey just as great a meaning as any actions. It is a power that is being remarkably under-utilized during the Katrina aftermath.

The disconnect continued last week. It was Thursday, September 8, nine days after the enormity of the crisis was known, the White House finally announced a "National Day of Prayer and Remembrance" -- for September 16, more than two weeks after the hurricane hit. For comparison's sake, the National Day of Mourning after the terrorist attacks was September 14 -- the same day as the now-famous "bullhorn" moment. As another comparison, ten years ago, Bill Clinton announced post-Oklahoma City a national day of mourning for April 23, four days after the bombing.

Perhaps America doesn't need a Clinton-style emotional pep talk. Fair enough. Terrorist attacks -- whether domestically or foreign-initiated -- are different. Perhaps.

However, one can fairly ask: "WWRD -- What Would Reagan Do?" Wouldn't he stand up and speak to a nation that has, for the time being, lost one of its major cities? Wouldn't there have been some sort of grand statement made by the man who could say these
words:

We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."

Yes, that was a different time -- and certainly the first time that Americans had seen such a catastrophic, midflight, failure of the American space program. A previously-scheduled State of the Union address was postponed because of the tragedy. Reagan instead used a brief portion of that evening time to comfort a nation.

Which is precisely the point -- that is a role that only the president can perform. It is to recognize when a unique and tragic event has occurred and help guide the nation in a conversation of what this means.

What is most remarkable is that a White House that saw the value of announcing a new Supreme Court nominee in
prime time couldn't see a similar country-rallying benefit in doing something similar in the wake of Katrina.

Merely from a coldly political viewpoint, such an action would have, for at least 15 or 20 minutes, stopped the parade of harrowing pictures coming into American households -- and the various commentary and gut-wrenching emotional reporting. The president would have his say. To use the current in vogue phrase, Bush could have "
framed" the situation. The fact that the statement was coming from the Oval Office of the White House would give it a gravity that his various comments on the White House lawn and on airport tarmac in the affected areas just lacked.

Black leaders want to say that Bush treated New Orleans differently because the victims were black. Those charges may be unfair, however, they arose out of an an untended environment: The president rhetorically never managed to address this calamity with the sense of national significance that the moment demanded.

Subsequent multiple presidential visits to the region and the passage of $62 billion in federal aid shouldn't be ignored. But, is it almost a case of "too much, too late"?

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Some Other-Than-Bush Blame

This can't be blamed on George W. Bush or Kathleen Blanco or Ray Nagin. However, that something like this can still happen in the United States of America in the 21st century is profoundly disturbing.

To underscore two major facts: 1) A New Orleans police officer first told those fleeing that they couldn't stay in his command center -- and then, according to an eyewitness, swore that buses were waiting for them on the other side of a bridge: "He looked all of us in the eye and said, 'I swear to you, there are buses waiting across the bridge.'" 2) Suburban cops blocked individuals on foot from crossing a bridge to potential safety.

Whatever broad investigation occurs, neither the involved New Orleans cops nor their suburban comrades should keep their badges.

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Real News -- or The Onion?

You make the call.

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UPDATE/CORRECTION

In my post last week here, I stated that the New York Times story on the Forest City Ratner Brooklyn Standard promo publication failed to disclose that the developer is building the NYT's new midtown headquarters. In fact, the disclaimer was indeed in the story and I overlooked it. I regret the error.

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Friday, September 09, 2005

 

Notes on A GOP Affirmative Action Baby

Black leaders have been raising the wrong "race" issue. Their argument has been that the complexion of the stranded in New Orleans had something to do with the slowness of the federal response. Rev. Al Sharpton declared: If we were not dealing with black people and poor people, we would not be dealing with this snail's pace reaction."

However, given the various fingerpointing between local, state and federal officials, it may be hard to make the case that the main dereliction of responsibilty in this tragedy is because the white-run federal government doesn't care about the poor blacks of New Orleans.

Instead of asking, "How would residents have been treated if they were white?" a better query might be, "How would FEMA Director Michael Brown be perceived if he were black?"

And by black, I don't mean if he were
this guy.

I mean, consider what could be said of a hypothetical "black" FEMA Director Michael Brown with a
professional background that can be described, at best as "thin":

When Brown left the [International Arabian Horse Association] four years ago, he was, among other things, a failed former lawyer--a man with a 20-year-old degree from a semi-accredited law school who hadn't attempted to practice law in a serious way in nearly 15 years and who had just been forced out of his job in the wake of charges of impropriety. At this point in his life, returning to his long-abandoned legal career would have been very difficult in the competitive Colorado legal market. Yet, within months of leaving the IAHA, he was handed one of the top legal positions in the entire federal government: general counsel for a major federal agency. A year later, he was made its number-two official, and, a year after that, Bush appointed him director of FEMA.

Yes, such a man would be called -- as Brown has -- a beneficiary of political patronage, rescued from professional oblivion by ex-FEMA director and Bush 2000 campaign manager Joe Albaugh.

Given the Katrina aftermath, such a man might be called -- as Brown has -- unqualified and incompetent.

But, beyond that, the black Michael Brown would be called an affirmative action hire, a beneficiary of racial preferences. It would be inferred that standards were lowered -- to an obviously dangerous degree. As Larry Elder reasonably asks, "[W]hat of doctors, mechanics, engineers, and other critical life-and-death jobs filled by those 'boosted' via lessened standards?"

Indeed, what of "other critical life-and-death jobs filled by those 'boosted' via lessened standards"? Critical, like At the college level, defenders of racial affirmative action point to "legacy students" -- the sometimes less-talented offspring of alumni who nonetheless get set-aside slots -- as affirmative action for the privileged.

Well, the sort of evident patronage as represented by Michael Brown is not necessarily a bad system -- except when someone ends up in a position to which they are so unqualified that the results could be, well, disastrous.

Yes, the political world is different than the private sector with different rules and mores. Still, when an individual this unqualified is so obviously over his head, it is impossible to defend either his current employment or the fact that he was placed in such a potentially serious position in the first place.

Standards? Yeah, right. Sure, Republicans must believe in standards, right?

Michael Brown's continued employment by this administration is an insult to anyone who has ever believed in such notions as responsibility and accountability. Defenders of racial preferences should point to Michael Brown as the poster child for white-boy affirmative action. If George W. Bush decides to keep Michael Brown on, well, he has made a "legacy admission" of a different sort.

UPDATE: No no, no! Summoning Brown back to Washington and removing him from the hands-on (such as it was) relief effort doesn't count. The guy doesn't get to sit at a desk and collect his nice government salary. He needs to be totally gone -- days ago.

However, given what is known about the Bush administration, one could say that his fate has been sealed. Note two passages in Saturday's Washington Post. First:

The decision to sideline Brown yesterday was an implicit rebuke of a top aide by Bush, who rarely fires or publicly disciplines lieutenants as long as they are loyal.

This determined mutual loyalty has been noticed by friends and foes alike as a signature trait of the administration. Well, this comment from Brown on his troubles may seal the deal (emphasis added):

He angrily denied padding his résumé, blaming mistakes on the White House and on FEMA for misrepresenting his background, and he bristled at all the attacks on his handling of the hurricane: "I'm anxious to get back to D.C. to correct all the inaccuracies and lies."

Oops! Sorry, Brownie, that's not how the game is played!! Whatever happens, you don't blame the White House for your troubles. You have now laid the predicate to an inevitable "for cause" -- by the rules of this particular team -- permanent separation.


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Pork Does Kill....

The Washington Post explores an aspect of the Katrina aftermath that Dick Morris raised earlier this week: A lot of federal money that went to Louisiana that could have -- maybe should have -- been used for things such as levee support instead went for more prosaic pork projects: "[O]ver the five years of President Bush's administration, Louisiana has received far more money for Corps civil works projects than any other state, about $1.9 billion; California was a distant second with less than $1.4 billion, even though its population is more than seven times as large."

(Rather than make the population point, the Post could have also noted that California -- between, mudslides, earthquakes and fires -- is hardly at a loss for potential natural disasters.)


Without addressing the Bush-Blanco-Nagin responsibility issue, it seems to me that there's a strong case to be made that if federal money coming to Louisiana was a problem, but a potentially surmountable one. Money was there, but apparently not going to the most vulnerable aspect of its signature city's infrastructure.

Applicable lesson: Pork may be "the other white meat," but too much of it can still leave your heart vulnerable.

One last point on the "responsibility" question: The 9/11 Commission chairman spoke to Reuters this week in pre 9/11 anniversary interviews. They also discussed the Katrina response in light of the work on assessing how government is supposed to collaborate.

Kean raised an issue that had been bothering me for a while. Would assessing the structual integrity of infrastructure such as New Orleans' levees be something that the Department of Homeland Security would do as part of its mission -- given how relatively easy it might be for a terrorist to use, say, a lower level hurricane as cover to blow up the levees.

Well, according to one of the 9/11 chairs, DHS was supposed to do something like that:

Kean said the Department of Homeland Security, a sprawling bureaucracy set up after the 2001 attacks, failed to produce two mandated risk assessments to U.S. transportation and infrastructure including levees such as the ones that failed after Katrina, swamping New Orleans.

"One report was due April 1. The other was due in early summer. Neither report has been done," he said. Homeland Security officials were not immediately available to comment.

I think it's fair to ask where those risk assessments are.

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Thursday, September 08, 2005

 

"Freedom" Is Just Another Word For...

Over at Reason, please find my perspective on this Sunday's 9/11 "Freedom Walk" event.

UPDATE: Even worse than I thought. Your view of freedom may differ from the official vision on the National Mall this Sunday:
Organizers of the Pentagon's 9/11 memorial Freedom Walk on Sunday are taking extraordinary measures to control participation in the march and concert, with the route fenced off and lined with police and the event closed to anyone who does not register online by 4:30 p.m. [Friday]...

The U.S. Park Police will have its entire Washington force of several hundred on duty and along the route, on foot, horseback and motorcycles and monitoring from above by helicopter. Officers are prepared to arrest anyone who joins the march or concert without a credential and refuses to leave...

What's unusual for an event on the Mall is the combination of fences, required preregistration and the threat of arrest...

One restricted group will be the media, whose members will not be allowed to walk along the march route. Reporters and cameras are restricted to three enclosed areas along the route but are not permitted to walk alongside participants walking from the Pentagon, across the Memorial Bridge to the Mall.


According to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Allison Barber, the tight security on the walk was necessary to prevent inconvenience at the concert part of the event: "We didn't want a bottleneck at the concert. We didn't want people to miss the concert while waiting to be screened. So we decided to do the screening at the Pentagon. That means the entire route has to be kept closed."

So, to get this straight: The Pentagon organizes a "Freedom Walk" with enforced registration, an overwhelming police presence, the arrest of uncredentialed late-deciders -- and the cordoning off of the media. A walk "celebrating" the concept of freedom is closed to avoid the risk that participants might miss part of the event's entertainment portion. Absolutely amazing.

Constitution -- fade to (Clint) black.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

 

Dueling Tragedies/Responses

Transplanted Louisianan -- and now-Brooklynite -- Ken Wheaton has some really trenchant insights on the 9/11-Katrina comparisons.

This topic was covered by, among others,
Dawn Summers and yours truly a few days ago.

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Kristol-Not

So, on "Fox News Sunday," panelist Bill Kristol basically asserted that Hurricane Katrina would not have much of a material effect on George W. Bush's second-term agenda.

Are you kidding me!?!? To the extent that the "second-term agenda" (i.e. Social Security, extending tax cuts, etc.) wasn't already in trouble, Katrina just swept it away. Kristol said that he sees no sign that suddenly people are want more taxes instead of less taxes.

Oh well -- so much for that. Late last week, Grover Norquist stated that the hurricane shouldn't distract the Senate from passing death tax relief. Bill Frist initially scheduled it for this week. Not any more:
One sign of GOP unease: The Senate was supposed to vote this week on whether to permanently repeal the estate tax, but Frist said yesterday that the bill will be temporarily shelved. The announcement came two hours after Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) called for Republicans to back off tax cuts in the wake of the Katrina tragedy.

This isn't exactly cause for cheering if you're a conservative -- but it is a bow to reality.

But, here's the big question: Did Kristol just sleep through 1992? Did he forget what Hurricane Andrew did to President H.W. Bush's presidency? Yes, Clinton's "It's the economy, stupid" was the memorable political slogan. But, the Bush administration's seeming slowness to respond to Hurricane Andrew helped craft the image that it was out-to-lunch when it came to domestic matters (the racial component evident in Katrina didn't come into play-- that came into play earlier in the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles). Kristol was Dan Quayle's chief of staff at the time. You'd think he would remember the curve ball that Mother Nature can toss into the political ballgame.

How weird that Iraq and hurricane's may play parallell roles in the respective legacies of two George Bushes.

Also, there's a clear major difference of opinion between erstwhile colleagues Kristol and David Brooks.
If the terrorist attacks mugged liberals into reality and turned them into 9/11 conservatives, one can't ignore the possibility that the events of this past week may force many Republicans to become "Katrina liberals." At the very least, if one thought the Bush spending was insane in the first term -- baby, buckle your seat belts and hand over your wallets for the budget-busting spree in the second term.

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Sunday, September 04, 2005

 

FEMA Director Brown "Fired"

Well, not exactly -- but for all intents and purposes, Michael Brown is toast. After being the face of the feds' flawed first days of response to the Katrina aftermath, Brown was nowhere to be seen on the Sunday morning talk shows (though he popped up in briefings during the day).

Instead, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff stepped up to be the media pinata. Of course, defending the indefensible is a tough job, so he looked somewhat pathetic. He had no real reply to questions such as Tim Russert's, "How could the president be so misinformed [on the likelihood of the levees breaking after a hurricane]?" A question on whether "you or anyone who reports to you contemplating resignation" was ducked with a, "After the crisis is over, assessments will be made, blah blah blah."

However, that it was Chertoff being the person to take the hit for the administration is about all the proof one needs that Brown's eventual fate in his current job is likely to be the same as his previous private sector spot.

By the way, try to catch "Meet The Press" if MSNBC/CNBC rebroadcasts it later this evening/overnight. The transcript can't truly capture the emotional impact of Aaron Broussard, the president of Jefferson Parish. His initial comments, where it is clear that he is referring to notes, are devastating in their criticisms of FEMA:

Let me give you just three quick examples. We had Wal-Mart deliver three trucks of water, trailer trucks of water. FEMA turned them back. They said we didn't need them. This was a week ago. FEMA--we had 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel on a Coast Guard vessel docked in my parish. The Coast Guard said, "Come get the fuel right away." When we got there with our trucks, they got a word. "FEMA says don't give you the fuel." Yesterday--yesterday--FEMA comes in and cuts all of our emergency communication lines. They cut them without notice. Our sheriff, Harry Lee, goes back in, he reconnects the line. He posts armed guards on our line and says, "No one is getting near these lines." Sheriff Harry Lee said that if America--American government would have responded like Wal-Mart has responded, we wouldn't be in this crisis.
But, at the end, Broussard breaks down on television after telling the story of the death of the mother of one of his emergency management workers: "Nobody's coming to get us. Nobody's coming to get us. The secretary has promised. Everybody's promised. They've had press conferences. I'm sick of the press conferences. For God sakes, shut up and send us somebody." After interviewing hundreds of polished journalists and politicians on his show, getting fairly scripted responses, Russert couldn't deal with the real-time raw, non-spinning human emotion that Broussard was presenting. It must have been a major shock -- he quickly moved on to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

UPDATE: Notwithstanding the title of this post, Michael Brown is still, technically, the head of FEMA. To address that situation, I want to add my name officially to the list of people who say that he should be gone now, like immediately -- yesterday, if not before. The blogosphere list already includes Michelle Malkin, Andrew Sullivan, Brendan Loy (great hurricane post's by the way -- his Notre Dame affiliation aside), Kevin Drum and, I would imagine, just about anyone with any degree of sense. Lest one forget, the above linked Boston Herald article comes from a right-leaning paper.

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Dawn of Reason

Ms. Summers schools Mayor Nagin on the comparative lessons to be drawn from 9/11 and Katrina.

I agree with her almost 100% -- particularly sharing her confusion over Nagin's need to bring in the drug addicts as another reason contributing to the initial crisis; figure the administration to remember that one, if they want ammunition for
blaming local officials. The only slight disagreement I would have is that the essential crisis of 9/11 took place in a compressed time frame. The planes were hijacked at 8 AM and the essential destruction (including the collapse of the Towers) was over within hours -- there were no more attacks or continued carnage that day. The emotional aftershocks were felt for days, weeks, months, now.

Katrina was a crisis that rolled over for nearly a week, before some sort of order appeared.

But, I think a question has to rightly be asked -- why is it that, despite how well the president performed in getting the country together and focused post-9/11 and the political benefits that accrued to him because of that -- Rudy Giuliani is the person who comes to mind as THE leader ON 9/11? One can still remember Peter Jennings asking, "Where is the president?" The president's initial message to the nation seemed tentative. Ironically, Giuliani gave the WH time by keeping a sense of order in New York. By 9/14, he had, as mentioned below, found his voice.

The corollary to Katrina -- with neither Mayor Nagin or Gov. Kathleen Blanco appearing as forceful or organized as Rudy Giuliani, the inability of the White House to respond swiftly in a crisis -- for the second time -- was exposed.


UPDATE: Slightly edited to correct hasty-writing sloppiness.

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