If there had been lingering doubt, Hurricane Katrina invested President George W. Bush with the title finally of the most inept administration in national history. Either that, or the least caring.
When you consider the needless loss of life, American and others, and the thriftless squander of treasure and world esteem across nearly five long years, seriously, can there be any doubt?
Already, before the hurricane’s landfall, there was the pitiless miscalculation of almost every initiative: fiscal policies that were supposed to create jobs and general prosperity but produced historic deficits, the lowest job creation in modern history and five straight years of decline in median incomes; the futile four-year hunt for the mastermind of 9/11; the horrendous misjudgments (the kindest word for them) about Iraq before the war and about its aftermath; and all the small but often deadly little errors in between.
But the death, destruction and suffering in Katrina’s wake exposed the incompetence in a way that people’s partisan fidelities could not countenance. It is hard to cover it with excuses, and some of the administration’s most persistent defenders have, at least for a time, stopped trying. The whole world watched the administration’s fumbling explanations of what was happening in New Orleans and along the Mississippi and Alabama coasts, which were often contrary to what people saw on television.
CBS’s deadpan Bob Schieffer had the best description of it. The administration was mesmerized like a dog watching television, mystified by what it all could mean.
There is still the question of whether the president all along, in this and the other matters, actually knew what he was doing. Can there be willful incompetence?
The heads of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and its cabinet umbrella, the Department of Homeland Security, make a case for it. They had made no preparation for the hurricane’s aftermath although it was forecast to be perhaps the most powerful in a century and if you looked at their past records you could hardly have expected better.
Michael Chertoff, the head of Homeland Security, gained attention in 1994 as counsel for Al D’Amato’s Senate Whitewater Committee, badgering witnesses about the suicide of Vince Foster, deputy counsel to President Clinton, and more recently as the Justice Department official responsible for rounding up hundreds of immigrants innocent of any complicity in terrorism after 9/11, imprisoning them incommunicado for many months and then lying to a Senate committee about it, and also for explaining away the nation’s wartime safeguards against torture.
The president’s choices for director of FEMA were Joe Allbaugh, Bush’s Texas campaign coordinator, and then Allbaugh’s college roommate, the hapless Michael Brown whom Americans got to see in embarrassing action last week. Brown landed the job of saving Americans from death and suffering in disasters after he had been fired for mismanaging the training of judges and stewards for an Arabian horse show association in Colorado and bringing on a spate of lawsuits against the organization.
There may indeed be method in Bush’s madness. The time-tested way to get rid of an unwanted program is to put an incompetent in charge of it. Bush had downgraded FEMA. Disaster relief is a job for state and local governments, not the federal government, he said. Never mind that a state or a city, in a disaster as cataclysmic as Katrina, cannot requisition the forces to do the job like FEMA is empowered to do, especially if a third of the state’s militia, including those trained for such duty, is fighting in Iraq. Over the weekend, he was blaming state and local governments for the failings that fed and compounded the suffering.
Martha Whetstone, the El Dorado-born and Little Rock-educated former director of FEMA for the western states and the Pacific basin territories, was amazed but not shocked this week at the administration’s bungling of the relief. Since she left the agency upon Bush’s election in 2001, hundreds of the experts have left, upon their own or Michael Brown’s volition. The agency had returned to the condition that Arkansas’s James Lee Witt found it in 1993, a dumping ground for political hacks and boobs whom the administrations did not want to fire. It had gained such a reputation for incompetence in the Reagan and Bush I administrations that Congress was considering abolishing it and assigning its work to the Pentagon.
The bungling had been so bad after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 that Floridians voted in Bill Clinton. Recalling that, the younger Bush had FEMA take extra precautions to prevent its recurrence during the hurricane and election season of 2004. The agency flung billions of dollars around Florida after Hurricane Frances and other storms. The Florida Sun-Sentinel reported this spring that FEMA had paid for the funerals of 319 people in Florida in the fall, although only a few of the deaths had anything even remotely to do with the hurricanes. One was for the funeral of a millionaire supporter of Bush at Palm Beach Gardens, who died of complications from heart surgery two days before Hurricane Frances. Another died of cirrhosis five months after Hurricane Charley. Thanks to George Bush, you picked up the funeral tabs.
A democratic government’s first obligation is to protect and heal its people. A politician like Bush who says that government is incompetent for the task will almost certainly fulfill the prophecy.