Columns » John Brummett

True, false -- or both?

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We make a basic mistake on many of our political questions. We couch them as either/or.

Was Kenneth Starr a partisan and abusive prosecutor or was Bill Clinton a chronic dissembler even under oath?

Actually, the best answer is yes, both.

Is the Bush administration widely failed at home and abroad or will the Republicans likely maintain congressional majorities in the midterm elections, and the presidency beyond?

Yes, both.

Now a debate percolates on whether our federal government failed so thoroughly and spectacularly after Hurricane Katrina because the key people were incompetent or because the organizational structure was bureaucratically impossible.

Again, we should not constrain ourselves artificially. The answer is yes, both. And it’s more.

Michael Brown was a self-aggrandizing, camera-hungry political hack wholly unqualified to run FEMA. Michael Chertoff earned his Republican points by which he became head of Homeland Security, thus overseer of FEMA, not with any expertise either in police or emergency management work. Chertoff earned them in 1993 as a partisan prosecutor for the Senate committee then headed by Al D’Amato that first tried to make something criminal of Clinton’s goofy and failed business investment in Jim McDougal’s Whitewater land scheme.

It has been equal parts outrage and comedy to watch Brown and Chertoff snipe at each other lately. Brown says he couldn’t do his job after Katrina because Chertoff ordered him to go to Baton Rouge and stay there. Chertoff responds that he told Brown to stay put because every time he looked up Brown was on television riding around with a politician.

For eight years in the 1990s, through floods, hurricanes and tornados, did anyone ever get a good look on television at James Lee Witt, the old boy from Yell County whom Clinton took to Washington to run FEMA?

Probably not. James Lee was busy, often at disaster sites on the phone with the president, to whom he answered directly.

So, yes, FEMA ought to be restored to cabinet level with a direct organizational link to the White House. FEMA does not fit in Homeland Security. Handling our defenses against terrorism and managing the aftermath of a disaster — these are entirely different things.

That raises another key factor — the president himself.

In the 1990s, a fellow setting up a relocation plan for disaster victims knew he wasn’t dealing with a bureaucratic maze or a camera-crazed political hack. He knew that when he was talking to Witt, he actually was talking to the man in the Oval Office.

Clinton has not been given enough personal credit, and, in turn, George W. Bush has not been assigned enough personal blame.

Clinton had the advantage of believing in government. He knew that government’s biggest test was when Mother Nature did her powerful number. He accepted that government bore the essential responsibility in such circumstances.

By making Witt answerable to him directly, Clinton wasn’t merely empowering Witt. He was investing his most precious resource — a personal political stake.

Compare that, then, to Bush, often a critic of government, vacationing on his ranch as winds ripped, waters raged and levees collapsed, flying over a scene of inhumane neglect merely to peer from an airplane window, responding with soulless recitations of numbers about packaged meals delivered, and, because he was insufficiently engaged to know better, extolling “Brownie” for his great job performance.

The lessons to be learned from Katrina won’t come from true-false questions. They’ll require the multiple-choice format, with “all of the above” an option.

We’ll need better people. We’ll need a more efficient and accountable organizational structure. We’ll need a man at the top who believes in government, and who’ll seize the buck and hang on to it.


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