Inherit the Wind

A calm, assertive Geroge W. Bush stood in the lobby of the New Orleans Sheraton on Canal Street, looked reporters in the eye and promised a prompt response. This was not the president who seemed oddly off-message as the nation looked to him for reassurance and commitment to action. Away from the TV cameras and at ease with reporters from Texas, Bush first-named his way through the press pack as he fielded questions. He described a focused campaign that was ready to respond.

It was George W. Bush at his best. Unfortunately, it was not last weekend. It was the Republican National Convention in August 1988. We assumed Bush was working the Texas press corps for his father’s first presidential campaign. We now know he was planning to take on Ann Richards, the Democratic state treasurer preparing to run for governor in 1990 — until his mother told him it would be unseemly to run for governor so soon after his father was elected president. So he waited until 1994 to defeat Richards, by then a popular governor with approval ratings in the 70s. Bush’s ascent to the White House began in the bar of the New Orleans Sheraton and in the same Superdome where 30,000 African-American residents of New Orleans were left stranded last week while their president flew from his Texas ranch to San Diego to make a speech to shore up support for his Iraq war.

Exactly four years after Bush worked reporters in the Sheraton and delegates in the Superdome, Hurricane Andrew swept across Florida, into the Gulf of Mexico and up to Louisiana. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was as slow to respond then as it was last week, and the response from the White House was eerily similar to what we’re hearing from the current Bush administration. Surrogates speaking for the campaign warned Bill Clinton not to use the natural disaster to his political advantage. White House spokesperson Marlin Fitzwater said FEMA did fine. “The magnitude [of the hurricane] went way beyond the agency,” Fitzwater said, adding that “media second guessing” caused the angry public response to FEMA’s failure. President Bush flew to Florida to try to stanch the criticism of his slow response. “I think real progress is being made, but there’s still an awful lot of human suffering there,” the senior Bush said. “What we are going to try to do is move forward as fast as we can to help.”

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Three months later he was retired by Bill Clinton. “FEMA cost him the election,” a senior congressional staffer told me last week. “It was one of the worst-run agencies in the federal government.” The Government Accounting Office agreed, issuing a blistering report that urged a reorganization of the agency.

Clinton reorganized it. He started by appointing James Lee Witt, who ran the state disaster response agency in Arkansas while Clinton was governor. On his first day on the job, Witt stood on the steps of FEMA’s Washington office, shaking the hands of agency employees as they arrived for work. He cut out redundant levels of bureaucracy, met with state emergency directors and quickly fulfilled Clinton’s promise of a responsive agency. He was in complete personal command, working in the city for a week, moving people and resources in from across the country, when the Northridge Earthquake hit Los Angeles in January 1994.

Midway through his second term, Clinton met with members of Congress to explain the workings of each reorganized FEMA office. He urged them to never again use the agency as a dumping ground for political appointees. “In any future administrations, I challenge you as members of Congress to never let a director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency be appointed and confirmed without having the background of emergency management and that experience.”

FEMA’s current director, Michael Brown, won 27 percent of the vote in an Oklahoma congressional race in 1988, then moved on to the International Arabian Horse Association. He was precisely the sort of appointee that concerned Clinton. His sole qualification was 10 years ensuring that Arabian show horses won on their merits rather than veterinary cosmetic surgery. It helped that he was a friend of Joe Allbaugh, who served as Bush’s executive director while he was governor of Texas. While Allbaugh was coordinating Bush’s first presidential campaign in 2000, Brown told his colleagues at the horse club he was guaranteed a job if Bush became president. When Bush appointed Allbaugh to run FEMA, Allbaugh’s college roommate Michael Brown followed along as FEMA’s general counsel.

The rest is unfortunate history. Allbaugh downsized the agency, cut its budget, and told a Senate committee that federal disaster aid is “an oversized federal entitlement.” Allbaugh resigned to open a lobbying office, and Bush appointed Brown to the top job at FEMA in 2003. The agency became a part of the Department of Homeland Security and regressed to what it was when Hurricane Andrew blew Poppy Bush out of the White House in 1992. A tale of two cities and two FEMA directors illustrates why it failed: Standing at the epicenter of the Northridge Earthquake in 1994, James Lee Witt moved 1,800 emergency workers (some bilingual) into Los Angeles in one day. Working out of a remote command center in Memphis last week, Michael Brown stunned the nation by saying he had just discovered that 20,000 people were stranded at the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans with no food, no water, no sanitation and no law enforcement. Reporters from CNN and National Public Radio had been reporting the convention center story for two days running.

“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” Bush said, before he was consumed by public opinion and the facts on the ground in New Orleans. “Brownie” hasn’t been seen since the president’s first, hasty trip to New Orleans. James Lee Witt has resurfaced, hired by Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to salvage the failed federal-state effort.

The failure was predictable. While the agency responsible for responding to disasters was mismanaged, the agency responsible for preventing disasters was slowly starved. In 2002, Bush budgeted one-third of what the Army Corps of Engineers needed to adequately maintain the sinking and eroding Lake Pontchartrain levees. In 2003, Congress increased the 2003 funding to 50 percent capacity. In 2004, as the administration’s Iraq war and tax cuts depleted the federal treasury, the White House budgeted 15 percent of what was needed for the Lake Pontchartrain levees; Congress pushed funding to 25 percent of capability. And in 2005, the White House budgeted 52 percent, with the Congress increasing funding to 76 percent of capability. Beyond the New Orleans levees, the White House Budget Office has consistently underfunded all Corps of Engineers projects.

Former Republican Congressman Mike Parker was the civilian director of the Corps of Engineers until 2002, when Bush fired him for criticizing the White House Budget Office’s underfunding of the agency. Parker said full funding wouldn’t have prevented the flooding of New Orleans. Building out the levees and upgrading pumping is a huge long-term project. Budget cuts by the White House, however, were part of the problem. “I am saying that there would have been a lot less flooding if the projects were fully funded,” Parker told New Orleans’ Times-Picayune.

Don’t look for full funding from this administration. Once the water and public anger subside, the hardasses in the Bush White House will remind themselves that the money is not there. Because it’s not. Shortly after the storm hit, Bush told ABC’s Diane Sawyer there’s no need for any tax increase. These guys don’t do taxation. Remember, it was only four months after taking the oath of office in 2001 that Bush opened up the White House for a fund-raiser for Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. At the time, Norquist was charging leaders of casino-rich Indian tribes in Louisiana and Mississippi $25,000 for the privilege of meeting President Bush. Norquist is the anti-tax agitator and Republican strategist who advocates “starving the beast” — that is, the federal government.

In May 2001, two Indian chiefs wrote $25,000 checks and showed up at the White House, where Bush thanked them for supporting anti-tax initiatives organized by Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist’s always said he wants to reduce the federal government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” He finally succeeded, even if it required more water than he envisioned. Last week, the federal government drowned in the befouled waters of Lake Pontchartrain — taking with it the domestic agenda of an administration complicit in the drowning.

Lou Dubose is currently working on a Random House book on the Bill of Rights.


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