George W. Bush now promises that he will uncover the truth about the government’s lethally inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina. “What I intend to do,” he told the White House press corps after his second hurried visit to the ruins of New Orleans, “is lead an investigation to find out what went right and what went wrong.”
Finding out what went right won’t take very long, and it’s a task that the President can certainly accomplish in his own style. He has often demonstrated that he knows how to heap praise on himself, his administration and his appointees regardless of the merits.
Just the other day, he reassured one of his top employees: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” That would of course be Michael Brown, the bumbling and unqualified director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, who would have to be a prime suspect in any honest probe of the Katrina disaster.
Finding out what went wrong when Katrina struck—and why—is a complicated mission for which Mr. Bush seems poorly situated. Although his minions whisper that the fault lies with Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, who happens to be a Democrat, Mr. Bush has declared that he won’t play “the blame game.” That phrase may sound familiar, because it echoes the Republican reaction after the 9/11 attacks, when the President tried to resist popular demands for a truly independent investigation.
In retrospect, his reluctance to permit such prying is understandable. Consider how smoothly the 9/11 investigation might have proceeded if overseen by him. No public hearings, no testimony from Richard Clarke and Condoleezza Rice, and definitely no declassification of the Aug. 6, 2001, Presidential briefing on the impending threat from Al Qaeda. Instead of all that embarrassing stuff, the White House could have issued a brief and heavily redacted report deflecting responsibility onto the previous occupants.
Yet having asked Bill Clinton for help, Mr. Bush can’t play the blame game with the former President. Besides, politicians of both parties have long acknowledged that Mr. Clinton rebuilt FEMA by naming the highly competent and qualified James Lee Witt to run the agency.
The story of Mr. Bush’s stewardship is strikingly different—beginning with the appointment of Joe Allbaugh, his former campaign manager and chief of staff in Texas, to head FEMA. Not long after Mr. Allbaugh took over the agency in early 2001, he informed a Senate subcommittee that the Bush administration worried whether federal disaster assistance had become “an oversized entitlement program” and planned to cut back, privatize and offload as much responsibility as possible onto state and local authorities and “faith-based organizations.”
Several months later, a FEMA study concluded that the destruction of New Orleans by hurricane was among the three “likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing this country.” The other two were an enormous California earthquake and a terrorist attack on New York City—which actually occurred only weeks after the study was completed. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the run-up to war in Iraq, the federal government set aside levee repairs and other preparations for the inevitable inundation of the Gulf Coast.
Soon, Mr. Allbaugh was preparing to depart FEMA to open his own consulting company. He reportedly hoped to profit from the war by opening doors in Baghdad for American businesses after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Named to succeed him was “Brownie,” who had served as FEMA’s deputy director general counsel for less than two years and otherwise had no disaster-management experience. Mr. Brown’s résumé elides that fact and also omits the previous 11 years when he worked as a “commissioner” of the International Arabian Horse Association, a position he left involuntarily. His other qualifications may include his status as Mr. Allbaugh’s old college roommate and his donations to the Bush-Cheney campaign.
If the President were to lead an investigation of what went wrong at FEMA over the past four years, to whom would he direct the appropriate questions about the appointments of Messrs. Allbaugh and Brown? Who would he question about the decision to drastically reduce funding for federal levee maintenance and repair? Who would he interrogate concerning the warnings his administration received from FEMA four years ago, and the notification from the National Hurricane Center in the days before Katrina struck?
And who would Mr. Bush ask to explain the ideologically twisted policymaking that led to the neglect of essential functions of the modern state, which may well have contributed to the deaths of uncounted thousands and the destruction of a center of American culture?
The President’s sudden eagerness to chair the inquisition into what went right and what went wrong when Katrina struck lends fresh meaning to an old Bob Dylan song. In “Talking John Birch Society Blues,” the confused and suspicious protagonist finally decides to investigate himself.
“Hope I don’t find out nothin’!” he exclaims.