Tilting at Windmills

From its earliest days–actually, beginning in our first year–the Monthly has warned of the twin dangers of leaders who don’t want to hear bad news and the subordinates who fear telling them about it. Both Newsweek and Time, in their issues of Sept. 19, do a superb job capturing the isolation of the White House that results. It wasn’t until the morning of Aug. 30, a full day after Katrina had hit New Orleans and the first reports of flooding had reached the Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge, that Bush’s aides met to decide “who gets to deliver the bad news” to the president–whose anger at the bearer of bad tidings they had good reason to fear–that he should cut short his vacation and return to Washington from San Diego.

Even after he got the news, writes Newsweek‘s Evan Thomas, “Bush blithely proceeded with the rest of his schedule for the day, accepting a gift guitar and pretending to riff like Tom Cruise in Risky Business” while television was reporting chaos at the Superdome, along with widespread looting, and while the only federal presence was a handful of brave Coast Guard helicopter crews rescuing survivors from rooftops peeking above flooded streets.

But if he is ill-served by his handlers, it is how Bush would have it. “[Bush’s] inner circle,” Time‘s Mike Allen explains, “takes pride in being able to tell him ‘everything is under control’…. The result is a kind of echo chamber in which good news prevails over bad, even when there’s a surfeit of evidence to the contrary.” It’s not just an echo chamber, but a parallel universe in which what the president believes to be true in no way resembles facts on the ground. “Four days after Katrina struck, Bush himself briefed his father and former President Clinton in a way that left too rosy an impression of the progress made,” Allen writes.

One of the most disturbing things about the mistakes made with Katrina is that they echo the mistakes made with Iraq. A refusal to heed warnings stands out in each case. Just as it ignored Gen. Shinseki’s prediction that many more troops would be needed than were being committed for the occupation of Iraq, the Bush administration also failed to act on warnings of the damage that was likely to result from Katrina, right up to a videoconference involving National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield and Bush on the day before the hurricane struck. How could Bush not have been alarmed if Mayfield told the president the same things he was saying in television interviews, where he warned of massive damage and flooding? After hearing the same warnings, the mayor of New Orleans said, “Max Mayfield has scared me to death.”

The White House’s tendency towards willful ignorance found itself replicated in other bureaucracies. On the Thursday after Katrina, with New Orleans in total disarray and with no evidence of any federal presence on the ground, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said, “It’s a source of tremendous pride to work with people who have pulled off this really exceptional response.” The next day, FEMA’s deputy director Patrick Rhode boasted, “I am actually very impressed with the mobilization of man and machine to help our friends in this unfortunate area.”

One characteristic of the Republican mind played, I suspect, a considerable role in the administration’s slow response. Watching television during the weekend before Katrina hit, they saw all those cars leaving New Orleans and probably figured that everyone was getting out, sublimely unaware that a large number of people simply don’t have cars. As Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) put it, “[W]hoever was in charge appeared to assume that every American has the capacity to load up their family in an SUV, fill it with $100 worth of gasoline, stick some bottled water in the trunk, and use a credit card to check into a hotel on safe ground.”

A similar blind spot revealed itself when, having abandoned the issuance of debit cards to survivors, the administration said it would make deposits in their bank accounts, apparently unaware that a large number of the survivors do not have bank accounts.

Having failed to take the poor into account during pre-disaster planning, the administration hasn’t forgotten about the rich during post-disaster politicking. Deep in the DNA of wealthy Republicans, there is an aversion to doing their part, not only avoiding service in the military, but also trying to avoid every tax they can. Now, it’s capped off by Bush’s proposal for a massive program of Katrina recovery without any increase in taxes. The Wall Street Journal reports that Republicans in Congress even want to cut taxes by inserting into any Katrina recovery program a localized suspension of the estate tax–which, by the way, now only applies to people with estates worth over $1.5 million.

What is so maddening about the estate tax exemption is, as the Journal noted in another article, many of New Orleans’ wealthiest escaped from Katrina with their homes on higher ground largely unscathed, with their private generators supplying the electricity so conspicuously absent in the rest of the city and continuing the gracious living to which they have been accustomed. “Mr. O’Dwyer at His Mansion Enjoys Highball With Ice,” reads the subhead of the Journal article.

One of the frustrations many Americans felt as they viewed day after day of suffering without any rescue was this: Where was the cavalry? Where were the troops? Well, as Newsweek reports, Donald Rumsfeld opposed sending regular army troops to New Orleans. It’s not hard to guess that one reason was that the Iraq war had already stretched the Army too thin. It’s hard to see how anyone can deny that Iraq has left us without enough troops to deal with other present and potential needs. When the massive activation of reserve troops began prior to the war, many people voiced concern that these reserves–a great number of whom, in their civilian capacities, are cops, fire fighters, and other first-responders–would leave a vacuum that could not be filled if something major happened here at home. Tragically, it appears they were correct.

Just as we were hamstrung by the lack of troops on the ground in Iraq, we were also handicapped by the shortage of talent in the office of L. Paul Bremer. Articles in both this magazine and The New York Review of Books have shown that Bush loyalists and conservative ideologues were placed in jobs that should have been filled by people with knowledge of Iraq and expertise in their respective fields. This is how the actual Bremer staff was described: “They are all on the campaign trail…. Everything is seen in the context of the next election…. They see this as a stepping stone to a better job in the next Bush administration…. They know nothing about development…. They come up with hare-brained schemes that cause so many problems that they take more time to fix than to create.”

Similarly, the top levels of FEMA were staffed not by people with experience in disaster response, but by advance men and spin doctors. The deputy director and deputy chief of staff both came from the White House Office of National Advance Operations where, in the words of a New York Times editorial, they were the people who decide “where the President will stand on the stage and which loyal supporters will be permitted into the audience.” Scott Morris, who was third in command of FEMA until May, had been a press handler on the Bush presidential campaign.

The result of all of this background in public relations was evident as FEMA briefed firefighters from other cities who had volunteered to help out in New Orleans. As they watched television sets showing fires raging there, the FEMA representative told them, “Your job is going to be community relations. You’ll be passing out FEMA pamphlets and our phone number.” It could be that the administration was concerned only about protecting its image. But it’s also possible that these poor souls simply didn’t know what else to do and fell back on the only thing they knew.

How do incompetents end up in these often critical government positions? One trait of bureaucratic culture unique to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is the tendency to think of the White House as the only part of the government that is truly important. Mike Allen in Time quotes a lobbyist close to the Bush administration who says: “Katrina has shown the incredible weakness of the notion that you can have weak players in key spots because the only people who matter are in the White House. You can’t have a Mike Brown at FEMA unless you can guarantee that there isn’t going to be a catastrophe.” One clue to the collapse of FEMA might have existed in a report released in 2003 by the Partnership for Public Service. They studied the morale of federal employees at each government agency–FEMA ranked dead last.

Although the excellent media coverage of the storm and the failed response has been one of the few hopeful developments in Katrina’s wake, the press does not escape blame either. Why didn’t anyone in the media want to know what was wrong over at FEMA before Katrina? We have done an extensive Nexis search and can only find one article that took a serious look at the agency since Bush came to the White House in 2001. That one was excellent, foreseeing many of the problems that have now become apparent to us all. The story, by Jon Elliston, appeared in North Carolina’s Independent Weekly, a publication that unfortunately does not enjoy wide readership. Still, one would have thought that at least one enterprising editor or reporter from the major media would have seized on the leads provided by the Weekly when it ran one year ago.

Even better would have been for news outlets to recognize that this is their job–figuring out if government agencies are doing their jobs and raising holy hell when they don’t. For all of the endless “Fleecing of America”-type reports on the evening news, what we need more than their exposs of minor fiscal scandal is an examination of whether government agencies are performing their missions. Are they doing what they are supposed to do? If not, how can they be fixed? That is the kind of news that concerns millions and millions of us.

Over the years the Monthly has tried to ask the tough questions, to examine–and to goad the rest of the media into examining–the performance of government agencies. Ten years ago, we published a story by Danny Franklin describing how James Lee Witt had raised FEMA out of the disaster of Hurricane Andrew and transformed it into an effective agency. So we should have been among the first to ask ourselves how things could have changed so markedly for the worse. But to our embarrassment, we were not.

I have lived through a good many administrations now, and in my memory there have been only two presidents who have been willing to make a major effort to find out what’s going on in the government outside the White House. The two were Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy, who learned from the Bay of Pigs how to avoid disaster during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Unlike Kennedy, Bush has not seemed able to learn from the lessons of experience. Here is The Washington Post‘s account of a recent report by members of the 9/11 Commission: “Four years after the September 11, 2001, attack, the federal government has failed to enact crucial homeland security reforms that could have saved lives and improved the sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina…. Local emergency officials are still unable to reliably communicate with one another [and] the federal government has no clear system of command and control for responding to a crisis.” Even the administration’s favorite newspaper, The Washington Times, concedes that four years after 9/11, the CIA has still failed to penetrate al Qaeda, not to mention North Korea and Iran.

I should concede that Bush’s response to Hurricane Rita indicates that he just may be taking at least a flier at learning from his experience. This time, he wasn’t caught imitating Tom Cruise, and the government’s response did seem sharper. But, even though improved, the response still left far too much to be desired. So we join in the call for an investigation of the government’s handling of Katrina and Rita that is truly as independent as the 9/11 Commission. Beyond that, it’s going to be up to the media to press those in power to apply the lessons of 9/11, Iraq, Katrina, and Rita, not only to hurricane response, but to the way the rest of the government is run. Republicans control not only the White House, but the Congress and the courts that might otherwise call it to account. It is precisely at such a time as this, when the most powerful seem the least given to self-criticism, that the media has the highest duty to hold the president’s feet to the fire.

Some conservatives–most not-ably Bill O’Reilly on the FOX News Channel–have held up the government’s botched preparation for and response to the hurricane as proof that government doesn’t work. But that’s just not the case. FEMA performed well under Witt’s leadership, reacting with speed and efficiency to a whole array of disasters in the mid-1990s, including massive Midwest flooding and a series of devastating hurricanes. The Katrina response was not a failure of government; it was a failure of bad government.

At the root of the White House’s cynicism about filling jobs at agencies like FEMA is the anti-government attitude that pervades the Republican Party. If you think the federal government is unnecessary, a tax-eating burden on the backs of American citizens, then you don’t care very much about the quality of the people you appoint. As a top official of the Civil Service under Ronald Reagan once observed: “Government’s goal should not be employee excellence, but employee sufficiency.”

If the appointee shares the same attitude, he will be like Joe Allbaugh, the former Bush campaign manager whose devotion to FEMA and its mission could be measured by the swiftness of his departure from the agency. He left after only two years as a director to cash in as a lobbyist, selling his services to, among other clients–and you won’t be surprised at this one–the KBR division of Halliburton.

Shortly after Allbaugh took office, he expressed the Federalist philosophy shared by almost all of his fellow Republicans when he said: “We must restore the predominant role of state and local response to most disasters.” The problem here is that most cities and states don’t have the resources to deal with a major disaster. The need for federal help is often going to be immediate. That is why the three day span that FEMA officials had determined they could rely on local and state response turned out to be a nightmare.

At the end of the day, this disaster exposed the limits of conservatism. If you do not believe in government, you are more prone to its inherent pitfalls. You don’t guard against them with competent appointees. You assume that mistakes are the unavoidable result of bureaucracy, not your inability to manage and when necessary reform that bureaucracy. You assume that everyone would be better off without government–even the poor, the sick, the elderly.

For today, however, those of us who have critiqued conservatism for years take no satisfaction in being right. We can only mourn the loss of life and livelihood with our fellow citizens.

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Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.