What's All This Then?

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Friday, September 09, 2005

I said I would probably be coming back to the subject of Katrina - and here I am already, but only because I’m somewhat miffed by one aspect of the story and I want to comment on it while it’s uppermost in my mind.

To clarify the title of this piece, I want to make it clear that I do not consider myself a "liberal blogger" and thus automatically anti everything Republican or conservative. If I were, I would be linked up to those who are unabashedly liberal and they - or some of them - to me. But I like to comment on many topics other than left and right wing politics and I’m quite happy to vote for whoever I think is the best candidate regardless of party, so I don’t qualify for membership in the liberal blog fraternity.

On the other hand, anyone who reads this blog knows that I am no fan of President Bush. We have elected presidents before who were not really ready to assume that powerful office, but in my view few if any with less skills, knowledge, wisdom and experience than Dubya.

I was listening to Jerry Springer’s radio show the other day and he made the point that voters don’t give enough consideration to competence when making up their minds about a presidential candidate. They focus on whether or not they agree with him on a few simple issues - abortion for example - or gay rights. They’re swayed by his looks and personality. And of course his ideology. But rarely competence.

I agree with Springer.

In his 1988 acceptance speech, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis said "This election isn’t about ideology. It’s about competence." It’s ironic that he said that about a race against Bush forty one, but he was as wrong then as he would have been running against the son of forty one. Ideology trumps competence every time and that’s how we finished up with Bush forty three in the White House.

Undoubtedly Dubya’s lack of competence played some role in the less than appropriate federal response to the onslaught of Katrina. And some of his ridiculous utterances at photo-ops while people were suffering and dying only made his incompetence more glaringly obvious.

The man’s facial contortions that punctuate his speech, no matter what he’s talking about, add to the impression that he doesn’t have a total grasp of what is happening around him. It’s hard not to get the feeling that he isn’t playing with a full deck when he’s talking about death and destruction and suddenly breaks into a broad grin.

If Nancy Pelosi’s report of her meeting with the President is accurate, you also have to wonder if he’s living on the same planet as the rest of us. She told him Michael Brown should be fired. He asked why she thought he should be fired. She said because of what went wrong and what didn't go right - and he asked "what didn't go right?"

Having said all of that, I have to say that in my view, the critics who are attacking and ridiculing him over his role in the federal response to Katrina are way over the top.

It’s true that he didn’t cut his vacation and rush back to the White House as soon as Katrina’s potential danger became known and it’s true that on the day it made landfall in Louisiana, he took off for Arizona and California to make speeches about Medicare, Iraq and the anniversary of World War II. But in the meantime, the White House did respond to declarations of emergency by state and local officials along the gulf coast with warnings to DHS and FEMA to prepare to coordinate disaster relief efforts - and followed with its own declaration of emergency. Most people are in agreement that all of the declarations and instigation of action at the local, state and federal levels were slower than they should have been, but none of that justifies the piling on that is being aimed at Mr. Bush.

If the danger had been of a different kind - if the winds of war had been gathering off shore - if there had been intelligence of a potential armed attack against the United States, then we would have expected that the President would have returned to the White House from Crawford immediately and micromanaged the minute to minute monitoring of the situation, surrounded and being advised by his cabinet and military and intelligence experts. But it wasn’t that kind of a danger. It was a danger that called for micromanagement by those officials and staff members responsible for reacting to natural disasters.

A president - any president - is the CEO, not just of the nation but of an enormous bureaucracy and in many divisions of that bureaucracy concerned with highly specialized expertise, he is little more than a titular CEO. Whether he was continuing his vacation in Texas while the hurricane was gathering steam or making speeches on the west coast, he should have been able to rely on the people at the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA to be on top of the situation and to keep him informed.

A lot of the criticism has to do with who he approved to be the head of one of those bureaucratic divisions and a lot of voices are calling for Michael Brown’s head. I agree that it should roll if only for some of the incredibly stupid things he said as the tragedy unfolded. You and I watching television knew there were thousands of people stranded at the Ernst N Morial Convention Center, but Brown had no clue! News anchors were asking him - "don’t you watch television or listen to the radio ?" - and he stumbled all over the place trying to explain his ignorance of the situation.

Considering his background and performance, Brown is probably not that far removed from being the kind of titular head of FEMA in the same way that the President is the titular head of all government departments. Comedians and serious critics alike are having a field day with jokes about Brown’s previous job as Commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association and that he was asked to resign from that job. They’d probably render a service other than amusing us if they zeroed in on Brown AND Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff’s "qualifications" as FOGS

Remember Friends of Bill? FOB for short? The acronym didn’t mean that much during the Clinton years, but a similar acronym for Dubya’s friends takes on great significance for this presidency and this administration.

Friends of George!! FOG. FOGGS. FOGGY. Confused. Dim. Befuddled.

I don’t know if "Browny" and Chertoff qualify as direct FOGS. Maybe they’re FOFOGS - Friends of Friends of George, but FOG or FOFOG, the end result seems to be the same - and we can certainly fault the President for that.

But I think people are criticizing the President’s performance not so much because of the appointments of Brown and Chertoff - or because he downgraded FEMA from a cabinet position to a subsidiary of the Department of Homeland Security - or because of his proposed funding cuts from the New Orleans Army Corps of Engineers budget- but because he gave the impression of not grasping the seriousness of the problem as quickly as he should.

I don’t know that there was anything he could have done to have made Katrina less of a disaster than it is, perhaps other than to have picked up a telephone before it even made landfall in Louisiana on August 29, and ordered the army to take control of the whole coastal area and direct rescue operations. But that would have required the President to be blessed with immaculate foresight - enough for him to have known that what he needed to do was override the authority of the agencies that had the responsibility to do such work and make it a military operation from the get go. He doesn’t have that kind of foresight. Nobody does. But everyone of course has twenty twenty vision.

I’d like to think that if I were someone in total authority - if I were President of the United States and hearing from experts that this was a hurricane that could destroy New Orleans, I would bypass everyone and order the evacuation of the entire city immediately. By the army. That is unless I listened to the little guy perched on my left shoulder who keeps asking "What if it veers off and doesn’t hit New Orleans? Won’t you look stupid disrupting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and running up a bill into the millions?"

I’m not excusing the President - far from it. He has to assume responsibility for the poor performances of the people he appointed to head the agencies that are supposed to protect us from disaster - and he has to stop this ridiculous business of praising them when the whole damned world can see that they fell down on the job.

But I don’t see the point in accusing him of being solely and personally responsible for the suffering that has resulted from Katrina and repeating that accusation day after day after day, because he obviously isn’t - and I think his critics - of which I’m one - need to back off a few degrees. They’re way over the top.