Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Photo-Op Presidency

[[D I S A S T E R S]] * With criticism of the federal government’s slow-footed response to Hurricane Katrina rising fast, just as the contaminated flood waters in New Orleans are beginning to recede, George W. Bush--reacting to pressure even from his fellow Republicans--promises to “lead an investigation to find out what went right and what went wrong.” He told reporters on Tuesday that he’d be sending Dick Cheney to America’s battered Gulf Coast on Thursday, to “make sure that we remove any obstacles, bureaucratic obstacles” that may be standing in the way of recovery efforts in New Orleans and elsewhere.

However, Capitol Hill lawmakers, back in Washington, D.C., after their summer recess, say they’re already determined to hold their own hearings on this matter, during which they will question the performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and its under-fire director, Michael Brown, and look for any shortcomings in the evacuation plan for the Crescent City. Those hearings could begin as early as next week. No decision has been announced on whether Bush will be called to testify about his administration’s actions in this calamity (though The American Prospect says it’s “exceedingly unlikely that congressional Republicans would ever be willing to haul the president before their panels,” because that “would signify that Katrina really had precipitated a genuine political crisis for this administration”).

Yet even before such hearings are gaveled to order, there are calls for an independent inquiry into how the White House and it affiliated federal agencies dealt with last week’s deadly storm. “I don’t think either the president or the Congress can conduct the kind of objective, independent investigation that we need,” declares U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York). The former first lady and possible future presidential candidate insists that what’s required here is a bipartisan “Katrina Commission” similar to the panel Bush named (though only reluctantly) to study the complex circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “This is not a game,” Clinton observes. “This has to be a serious inquiry that people have confidence in that will help us understand what did go wrong. The sooner we know that, the better.”

The New York Times sides with Clinton. In an editorial published today, the paper opined that “No administration could credibly investigate such an immense failure on its own watch. And we have learned through bitter experience--the Abu Ghraib nightmare is just one example--that when this administration begins an internal investigation, it means a whitewash in which no one important is held accountable and no real change occurs. Mr. Bush signaled yesterday that we are in for more of the same when he sneered and said, ‘One of the things that people want us to do here is to play a blame game.’ This is not a game. It is critical to know what ‘things went wrong,’ as Mr. Bush put it. But we also need to know which officials failed--not to humiliate them, but to replace them with competent people.” The paper adds that an independent commission should probe “why federal officials ignored predictions of a disastrous flood in New Orleans” and “whether the problem [with the federal response to this catastrophe] lies in the structure or in execution.” It continues:
Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal showed how the Bush administration had systematically stripped power and money from FEMA, which had been painfully rebuilt under President Bill Clinton but had long been a target of Republican “small government” ideologues. The Journal said state officials had been warning Washington--as recently as July 27--that the homeland secretary, Michael Chertoff, was planning further disastrous cuts. ...

The panel should also look at the shortcomings of local officials and governments. It was chilling, to put it mildly, to read Mayor Ray Nagin’s comment in The Journal that New Orleans’s hurricane plan was “get people to higher ground and have the feds and the state airlift supplies to them.”

But disasters like this are not a city or a state issue. They concern the entire nation and demand a national response--certainly a better one than the White House comments that “tremendous progress” had been made in Louisiana. We’re used to that dismissive formula when questions are raised about Iraq. Americans deserve better about a disaster of this magnitude in their own country.
And the public deserves answers now, not later, as the Bush folks would prefer. “Look,” writes Arianna Huffington in The Huffington Post, “if we’ve learned anything from watching shows like CSI, Law & Order, and their endless progeny, it’s that you can’t let a crime scene grow cold.”

* * *

According to the Associated Press, FEMA chief Brown waited “roughly five hours” after Hurricane Katrina struck on August 29 before even asking his boss, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, to send 1,000 DHS workers to support soon-to-be-overwhelmed rescue forces in the Gulf area. In a leaked memo he addressed to Chertoff, Brown described the storm as “this near catastrophic event,” but then proposed that the 1,000 workers he was requesting be dispatched not immediately, but within 48 hours. Brown also asked for a total of 2,000 DHS workers within seven days--hardly what seems necessary to handle a “near catastrophic event.” Furthermore, Brown made a point of reminding DHS personnel headed for the Gulf, that one of their responsibilities was to “convey a positive image” of the federal government’s response to the catastrophe. We saw how well that worked out ...

* * *

Political journalist Joshua Micah Marshall now brings to the broader public’s attention a report from Utah’s Salt Lake Tribune, “which tells the story of about a thousand firefighters from around the country who volunteered to serve in the Katrina devastation areas. But when they arrived in Atlanta to be shipped out to various disaster zones in the region, they found out that they were going to be used as FEMA community relations specialists. And they were to spend a day in Atlanta getting training on community relations, sexual harassment awareness, et al. This of course while life and death situations were still the order of the day along a whole stretch of the Gulf Coast.” The firefighters, many of whom had been schooled in emergency medicine and search-and-rescue methods--said they were prepared to do anything they could to help beleaguered residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, even if it meant braving “the heat, the debris-littered roads, the poisonous cottonmouth snakes and fire ants.” But, the Tribune explains,
as specific orders began arriving to the firefighters in Atlanta, a team of 50 Monday morning quickly was ushered onto a flight headed for Louisiana. The crew’s first assignment: to stand beside President Bush as he tours devastated areas.
Your tax dollars at work. Bush promised voters an administration that would stand strong against “evildoers” and ensure the security of the “homeland.” But what he’s been delivering is a photo-op presidency.

* * *

David R. Mark, over at the JABBS (Journalists Against Bush’s B.S.) blog, compares the response times of the three most recent U.S. presidents to hurricanes occuring on their watches. It should surprise nobody who’s seen the Katrina coverage, that George W. Bush comes out a loser in this hed-to-head, pretty much equaling the performance of his father, George H.W. Bush, who in 1992 called out the cavalry four days late to deal with Hurricane Andrew, another Category 5 storm, which had clobbered South Florida. Bill Clinton, who spent a lot of time resurrecting FEMA’s image, with help from then-director James Lee Witt, makes the best showing here. As Mark points out, on two separate occasions, in 1996 and 1999, Clinton rushed back to D.C. to direct federal hurricane responses, in each instance promptly canceling his scheduled appearances and working with a better-organized FEMA than Bush Jr. has at his disposal. Oh, and in neither of Clinton’s two cases was the storm as severe as Katrina.

* * *

First, the U.S. Defense Department tried to prohibit the spread of photographs showing the caskets of soldiers, killed in Iraq, being shipped back to the States. Now, FEMA wants to prevent the news media from taking pictures of storm victims as they’re pulled from the waters flooding large parts of New Orleans. As the Los Angeles Times reports, the agency is rejecting “journalists’ requests to accompany rescue boats,” ostensibly because there’s not extra space on those craft.

Right. The Bush administration should worry more about salvaging New Orleans and the remainder of the Gulf Coast than trying to stem the tide of negative publicity arising from its manifest blunders in Katrina’s aftermath.

ADDENDUM: Unlike the 9/11 tragedies, which brought Americans of all stripes together--at least for a brief period--and redounded in Bush’s favor, the hurricane debacle has left a significant majority of people in the country unsatisfied with the prez’s efforts. A new SurveyUSA poll found 55 percent of respondents disapproving of the way Bush is handling Katrina, while 38 percent approve. SurveyUSA also asked 1,200 people nationwide to rate on a 1-to-10 scale the job being done by key players in the hurricane drama. The results:
  • U.S. Army General Russell Honore -- 6.8
  • Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour -- 6.4
  • New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin -- 5.7
  • Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco -- 5.2
  • George W. Bush -- 4.7
  • Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff -- 4.4
  • FEMA director Michael Brown -- 4.3
READ MORE:For Bush, a Deepening Divide,” Dan Balz (The Washington Post); “Why FEMA Failed,” by Farhad Manjoo (Salon); “Osama and Katrina,” by Thomas L Friedman (The New York Times); “Bush’s Folly,” by Gene Lyons (Arkansas Democrat Gazette); “The ‘Stuff Happens’ Presidency,” by Harold Meyerson (The Washington Post); “Bush Shows Indifference, Incompetence,” by Bob Herbert (Seattle Post-Intelligencer); “Dems Assail White House on Katrina Effort,” by Jennifer Loven and David Espo (AP); “Summer Is Over for America,” by Pat Buchanan (RealClear Politics); “Haunted by Hesitation,” by Maureen Dowd (The New York Times); “No Time for Turf Wars” (New Orleans Times-Picayune); “Bush’s Hurricane Response a Disaster,” by Michael Hiltzik (Los Angeles Times); “Bush Visit Halts Food Delivery,” by Michelle Krupa (New Orleans Times-Picayune)' “Chertoff’s Reading Habits” (Wonkette).

1 comment:

Elliot Rossiter said...

Excellent, that was really well explained and helpful