Katrina and the lessons of incompetent crony governance

     Former President George W. Bush gives opening remarks at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas for a conference titled 'Immigration and 4% Growth: How Immigrants grow the U.S. Economy,' Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012, in Dallas. (LM Otero/AP Photo, file)

    Former President George W. Bush gives opening remarks at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas for a conference titled 'Immigration and 4% Growth: How Immigrants grow the U.S. Economy,' Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012, in Dallas. (LM Otero/AP Photo, file)

    The 10th anniversary of Katrina gives us the perfect opportunity to revisit George W. Bush’s most incompetent screwup (second only to Iraq), the botched crisis that sealed his political fate and cemented his reputation as one of our worst presidents.

    There’s no need to recount all that went wrong. You’ve heard it all before. Suffice it to say that Boyd Blundell, a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, was right nearly a decade ago when he said, “This is what happens when you elect a government that hates government.”

    That’s the political lesson of Katrina. The innate conservative hostility to “big government” increases the odds that power for the public good will not be wielded effectively. If you basically use government to reward your cronies by giving them key jobs for which they’re unqualified – as Bush did – then you’re bound to mess things up, big time.

    Before Bush took office, the Federal Emergency Management Agency routinely got stellar reviews for its crisis work. In fact, during the first presidential debate in 2000, Bush pointedly praised Clinton’s longtime FEMA director, James Lee Witt. But after Bush eked out his victory, it was goodbye to James Lee Witt. The new director, Joe Allbaugh, was a Bush fundraiser who had no emergency preparedness or crisis management experience.

    Allbaugh’s successor, in 2003, was college chum Michael Brown, who got his job based on the emergency preparedness and crisis management credentials he had amassed while helming the International Arabian Horse Association. (Even today, that sounds like satire.)

    Brown proceeded to hire, as his top aides, two guys with zero relevent experience. They got their jobs based on their work as Bush advance men – arranging the president’s travel itinerary, getting the scripts for his appearances – you know, the kind of stuff that really comes in handy when you need to deal speedily with thousands of dislocated human beings.

    But Brown’s team was merely the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The Bush regime kept slashing the budget, downsizing its mission, leaving key posts unfilled – Allbaugh, as director, had derided FEMA as “an oversized entitlement program” – thus triggering an exodus of the seasoned FEMA people who had served with Witt. Indeed, shortly before Katrina, five state emergency managers (including some from southern states) went to Washington and raised hell with Bush officials. As Alaska’s emergency manager later said to The Wall Street Journal, “We told them straight out that they were weakening emergency management with potentially disastrous consequences.”

    The disastrous consequences were soon evident to all – The Journal wrote scathingly about “the government’s delayed understanding of the scope of the damage” – although Bush still didn’t seem to grasp the evidence. He publicly declared, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.” But Brownie resigned his heckuva job soon after.

    And five months after Katrina, a 600-page congressional report hammered Bush for “a failure of leadership.” Was that a partisan Democratic verdict? Nope. That report was authored by the House Republicans. Among other things, they dryly noted that Bush’s FEMA appeared to be suffering from a dearth of “seasoned disaster professionals.”

    In the years since Katrina, President Obama has naturally tried to mop up Bush’s slop – for starters, by reviving the wild and crazy notion that FEMA should be run by people with actual qualifications. His longtime director, W. Craig Fugate, previously ran the Florida Division of Emergency Managment during 11 presidentially-declared disasters. Whatever weaknesses FEMA may still have, at least it’s no longer a punch line for the late-night comics.

    So the lesson of Katrina is obvious: A party that aspires to govern needs to respect governance. You can’t screw with people’s lives by appointing unqualified cronies.

    Although I’m not sure that Jeb Bush has fully processed that message. Take a look at this photo, snagged from one of his campaign ads. Who’s that guy at Jeb’s side? Sure enough, it’s Brownie! You can’t fault the Bush family for loyalty, but I fail to see the political upside of parading his brother’s Katrina incompetence.


    But Donald Trump would no doubt appoint Great People to run FEMA, as part of his mission to save the USA. Quote of the week – arguably one of the greatest quotes ever – from yet another credulous Trumpitista: “We know his goal is to make America great again. It’s on his hat.”

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal