Leader Blues

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

EDITORIAL >> Only one’s presidential

Let us first be charitable about the images of post-Katrina leadership and recognize the obvious. Of the two Republicans observable in Arkansas over the weekend tending to the needs of the dispossessed, the president and the aspirant, Gov. Huckabee hands down struck us as the most presidential. Although disaster relief was primarily President Bush’s responsibility and Huckabee’s was merely ministering to the overflow of 25,000 or so within our borders, the governor seemed to be everywhere, welcoming, encouraging and, yes, being knowledgeable.
President Bush, on the other hand, seemed almost catatonic. He finally ended his long vacation from the White House and flew back to Washington. From there, as hundreds and perhaps thousands lay dying in the streets, homes and redoubts of New Orleans and in the many-splintered villages along the Mississippi and Alabama coasts, the president made a flyby and a couple of staged photo ops. The scripted messages were delivered mechanically and sometimes petulantly. People were doing a great job, he said, except maybe local and state officials. With criticism gathering, he made a mulligan visit at the first of the week with even better photo ops to demonstrate empathy and caring.

But while a speech and an emblematic hug or two were what the country needed in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, and Bush ultimately delivered those well enough, the human devastation of Hurricane Katrina required much more of the president of the United States. Solace was what the country and the people of New York needed four years ago this week.

The city’s and state’s infrastructure took care of the rescue of the few who could be saved from the rubble, the recovery of the dead, the treatment of the injured and, insofar as any community could, ministry to the grieving. But hundreds of thousands in New Orleans and along the coast needed help to stay alive, keep their families together and to hold on to the vanishing hope for a future.
It is for such instances that democratic people have nourished the idea of vigilant and humane government. For the people this time, government failed its purpose.

After first congratulating his administration’s team at Home-land Security and the vanishing little program called the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), for their magnificent work, President Bush yesterday announced that he would lead an investigation of the government failures in the aftermath of Katrina. Moreover, the heretofore invisible Vice President Dick Cheney will soon go to the Gulf Coast to get the straight of it and he will come back and tell us how well or badly his administration has done. He is the same vice president who gave us all those optimistic assays on the progress of finishing off Osama bin Laden, al Qaida and the insurgents in Iraq.

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Go-vernmental Affairs, on the other hand, may actually get to the bottom of the administration’s cataclysmic failures.

“It is difficult to understand the lack of preparedness and the ineffective initial response to a disaster that had been predicted for years, and for which specific, dire warnings had been given for days,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the chair of the committee. Sen. Jo-seph Lieberman, D-Conn., the ranking minority member, said the government’s ineptness in the crisis had eroded America’s self-confidence.

Even before Katrina roared through the rapidly disappearing coastal marshes and its gales and rain sliced through the levees holding the waters of Pontchartrain out of the city, the people of New Orleans and the Cajun country to the east and west had a sound inkling of the political forces that left them in such mortal peril.
Starting the month he took office, President Bush slash-ed funding for levee reconstruction and other vital waterways projects to keep floodwaters out of the city and to reconstitute the coastal wetlands that take the steam out of hurricanes and that have vanished to developers and oil companies that have cut swaths through the marshes for pipelines, roads, drilling rigs and storage facilities. The cuts became deeper the more the money was needed to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy and for the war in Iraq.

Three months before Katrina struck, Bush took his pen and slashed $71.2 million from the New Orleans Corps of Engineers for hurricane and flood projects. Though only symbolic at that point — the money could not have been spent fast enough to strengthen the levees before Katrina — it must have been fresh on people’s minds as they fled the waters or hovered in their attics or in the Superdome.

But more telling than the de-emphasis on disaster prevention was the virtual abandonment of preparedness by the federal government, the neutering of the FEMA, the Carter-era superagency that coordinates the nation’s response to natural and man-made emergencies. It had stultified in the Reagan and Bush I years, and its bureaucratic bumbling and lumbering after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 damaged President George H. W. Bush in Florida.

An Arkansan, James Lee Witt of Dardanelle, rebuilt the agency and won such bipartisan praise for its swift and dramatic response to major hurricanes, tornadoes, the Oklahoma City bombing and earthquakes that it became the symbol of effective government in the Clinton administration.

He turned the agency from a civil-defense orientation to preparation for natural disasters and mitigating the harm. The agency, given cabinet status by Clinton, could requisition help from federal and state agencies, including the military.
When Bush took office, he downgraded the agency and declared that responding to natural disasters was a state and local obligation and that the federal government ought to play only a diminished supporting role.
The president’s appointments to the agency, which were altogether political, did more than anything to erode its effectiveness. He first appointed his old Texas campaign aide, Joe All-baugh, to run it. When Allbaugh returned to politics, Bush was happy to oblige Allbaugh and appoint the man’s old college roommate, Michael Brown, to run it. Brown had been forced to resign his previous job of supervising the judging for an Arabian horse show association in Colorado because his mismanagement had brought a spate of lawsuits against the organization. Brown’s mismanagement of Katrina and his embarrassing public explanations were on full view last week.

While he is tuning up for a go at the national leadership, Gov. Huckabee may want to continue to observe George W. Bush and his spinmeister, Karl Rove, as the administration’s self-investigation goes forward.
The lesson will be that this is not the way to run a national government.