"What didn't go right?"

President Bush's absurd question underscores the arrogance of an administration whose "limited government" agenda is responsible for the disastrous federal response to Katrina.

Published September 8, 2005 8:26PM (EDT)

The Bush administration's mishandling of Hurricane Katrina stands as the pluperfect case study of the Republican Party's theory and practice of government. For decades conservatives have funded think tanks, filled libraries and conducted political campaigns to promote the idea of limited government. Now, in New Orleans, the theory has been tested. The floodwaters have rolled over the rhetoric.

Under Bush, government has been "limited" only in certain weak spots, like levees, while in other spots it has vastly expanded into a behemoth subsisting on the greatest deficit spending in our history. State and local governments have not been empowered, but rendered impotent, in the face of circumstances beyond their means in which they have desperately requested federal intervention. Experienced professionals in government have been forced out, tried-and-true policies discarded, expert research ignored, and cronies elevated to senior management.

Before Katrina, the Republican theory received its most apposite formulation by a prominent lobbyist and close advisor to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Grover Norquist, who said about government that he wanted to "drown it in the bathtub." In relation to the waters that surround it, New Orleans has been described as a bathtub, and it has served as the bathtub for Norquist's wish.

Only two people in the light of recent events have had the daring to articulate a defense of the Republican idea of government. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, asked about rebuilding New Orleans, volunteered: "It doesn't make sense to me." He elaborated: "I think federal insurance and everything that goes along with it ... we ought to take a second look at that." Thus Hastert upheld rugged individualism over a modern federal union. Just a month earlier, as it happened, Hastert had put out a press release crowing about his ability to win federal disaster relief for drought-stricken farmers in his Illinois district. While he was too preoccupied attending a campaign fundraiser for a Republican colleague to travel to Washington to vote for the $10.5 billion emergency appropriation to deal with Katrina's aftereffects, he did finally return to the capital to push for even more drought aid from the Department of Agriculture. Hastert's philosophy is not undermined by his stupendous hypocrisy, for hypocrisy is at the center of the Republican idea. Hastert simply has the shamelessness of his convictions.

The second defender was Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for which he was qualified by a résumé that includes being fired from his previous job as commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association and, more important, having been the college roommate of Joe Allbaugh, President Bush's 2000 campaign manager and Brown's predecessor at FEMA. On Sept. 1, Brown stated: "Considering the dire circumstances that we have in New Orleans, virtually a city that has been destroyed, things are going relatively well." Brown was unintentionally Swiftian in his savage irony. The next day, President Bush patted him on the back: "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." Brown exemplifies the Bush approach to government, a blend of cynicism, cronyism, and incompetence presented with faux innocence as well-meaning service and utter surprise at things going wrong.

Even as the floodwaters poured into New Orleans, unimpeded by any federal effort to stanch the flow, the White House mustered a tightly coordinated rapid response of political damage control. Karl Rove assumed emergency management powers. The strategy was to dampen any criticism of the president, rally the Republican base, and cast blame on the mayor of New Orleans and governor of Louisiana, both Democrats. It was a classic Bush ploy against the backdrop of crisis. The object was to polarize the nation along partisan lines as swiftly as possible. While policy collapsed, politics reigned. Once again, Bush the divider, not the uniter, emerged.

The White House released a waterfall of themes. No matter how contradictory, administration officials maintained message discipline. The first imperative was to disclaim and deflect responsibility. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan admonished the press corps, "This is not a time to get into any finger-pointing or politics or anything of that nature." The president down to the lowliest talk show hosts echoed the line that criticism during the crisis and reporting its causes were unseemly and vaguely unpatriotic.

After establishing that line, the White House laid out other messages to avoiding responsibility. Bush declared, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." From his bully pulpit he intended to drown out the reports trickling into print media that he had cut the funding for rebuilding the levees and for flood control. Then Bush assumed the pose of the president above the fray, sadly calling the response "unacceptable." Meanwhile, he praised "Brownie."

After Sept. 11, there was an external enemy, "evildoers" against whom to summon fear and fervor. Now, instead, the flood has brought to the surface the deepest national questions of race, class and inequality. On Aug. 30, the day after the hurricane hit, the Census Bureau released figures showing that the poor had increased by 1.1 million since 2003, to 12.7 percent of the population, the fourth annual increase, with blacks and Hispanics the poorest, and the South remaining the poorest region. Since Bush has been in office, poverty has grown by almost 9 percent. (Under President Clinton, poverty fell by 25 percent.) As these issues began to receive serious attention for the first time in years, Bush reiterated that it was inappropriate to "play the blame game."

Meanwhile, his aides sought to blame New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco. On Sept. 3, the Washington Post, citing an anonymous "senior administration official," reported that Blanco "still had not declared a state of emergency." Newsweek published a similar report. Within hours, however, the Post published a correction; the report was false. In fact, Blanco had declared an emergency on Aug. 26 and sent President Bush a letter on Aug. 27 requesting that the federal government declare an emergency and provide aid; and, in fact, Bush did make such a declaration, thereby accepting responsibility. Nonetheless, these facts have not stymied White House aides from their drumbeat that state and local officials -- but curiously, not the Republican governors of Mississippi and Alabama -- are ultimately to blame.

Yet others operated off-message, casting aspersions on the hurricane's victims. The president's mother, Barbara Bush, interviewed on American Public Media's "Marketplace" program," said of the displaced from Louisiana who are temporarily housed in Houston's Astrodome, "What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this -- this is working very well for them."

And Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., suggested that the residents of New Orleans who failed to escape the flood should be punished. "I mean, you have people who don't heed those warnings and then put people at risk as a result of not heeding those warnings. There may be a need to look at tougher penalties on those who decide to ride it out and understand that there are consequences to not leaving."

The White House sought to turn back the rising tide of anger among blacks by deputizing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. During the early days of the hurricane and flood, she had been vacationing in New York, taking in Monty Python's "Spamalot" and spending thousands on shoes at Ferragamo on Fifth Avenue. In the store, a fellow shopper reportedly confronted her, saying, "How dare you shop for shoes while thousands are dying and homeless!" -- prompting security men to bodily remove the woman. A week after the hurricane, Rice mounted the pulpit at a black church in Whistler, Ala. "The Lord Jesus Christ is going to come on time," she preached, "if we just wait." One hundred and 10 years after Booker T. Washington counseled patience and acceptance to the race in his famous "Atlanta Compromise" speech in the aftermath of Reconstruction's betrayal, the highest African-American official in the land updated his advice of forbearance.

After a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Bush warned against the "blame game" as he pointed his finger: "Bureaucracy is not going to stand in the way of getting the job done for the people." His aides briefed reporters on background that "bureaucracy" of course referred to state and local officials. That night, at the White House, Bush met with congressional leaders of both parties, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urged Bush to fire Brown. "Why would I do that?" the president replied. "Because of all that went wrong, of all that didn't go right last week," she explained. To which he answered, "What didn't go right?"

Bush's denigration of "bureaucracy" raises the question of the principals responsible in his own bureaucracy. Within hours of the president's statement, the Associated Press reported that FEMA director Michael Brown had waited five hours after the hurricane struck to request 1,000 workers from Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff. Part of their mission, he wrote, would be to "convey a positive image" of the administration's response.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune disclosed that Max Mayfield, head of the National Hurricane Center, briefed Brown and Chertoff before the hurricane made landfall of its potential disastrous consequences. "We were briefing them way before landfall," Mayfield said. "It's not like this was a surprise. We had in the advisories that the levee could be topped." The day after Bush's Cabinet room attack on bureaucracy, the St. Petersburg Times revealed that Mayfield had also briefed President Bush in a video conference call. "I just wanted to be able to go to sleep that night knowing that I did all I could do," Mayfield said.

After its creation in 1979, FEMA became "a political dumping ground," according to a former FEMA advisory board member. Its ineffective performance after Hurricane Hugo hit South Carolina in 1989 and Hurricane Andrew struck Florida in 1992 exposed the agency's shortcomings. Then Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina called it "the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses." President Clinton appointed James Lee Witt as the new director, the first one ever to have had experience in the field. Witt reinvented the agency, setting high professional standards and efficiently dealing with disasters.

FEMA's success as a showcase federal agency made it an inviting target for the incoming Bush team. Allbaugh, Bush's former campaign manager, became the new director, and he immediately began to dismantle the professional staff, privatize many functions and degrade its operations. In his testimony before the Senate, Allbaugh attacked the agency he headed as an example of unresponsive bureaucracy: "Many are concerned that Federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective State and local risk management. Expectations of when the Federal Government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level. We must restore the predominant role of State and local response to most disasters."

After Sept. 11, 2001, FEMA was subsumed into the new Department of Homeland Security and lost its Cabinet rank. The staff was cut by more than 10 percent, and the budget has been cut every year since and most of its disaster relief efforts disbanded. "Three out of every four dollars the agency provides in local preparedness and first-responder grants go to terrorism-related activities, even though a recent Government Accountability Office report quotes local officials as saying what they really need is money to prepare for natural disasters and accidents," the Los Angeles Times reported.

After Allbaugh retired from FEMA in 2003, handing over the agency to his deputy and college roommate, Brown, he set up a lucrative lobbying firm, the Allbaugh Co., which mounts "legislative and regulatory campaigns" for its corporate clients, according its Web site. After the Iraq war, Allbaugh established New Bridge Strategies to facilitate business for contractors there. He also created Diligence, a firm to provide security to private companies operating in Iraq. Haley Barbour, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and now governor of Mississippi, helped Allbaugh start all his ventures through his lobbying and law firm, Barbour Griffith and Rogers. Indeed, the entire Allbaugh complex is housed at Barbour Griffith and Rogers. Ed Rogers, Barbour's partner, has become a vice president of Diligence. Diane Allbaugh, Allbaugh's wife, went to work at Barbour Griffith and Rogers. And Neil Bush, the president's brother, received $60,000 as a consultant to New Bridge Strategies.

On Sept. 1, the Pentagon announced the award of a major contract for repair of damaged naval facilities on the Gulf Coast to Halliburton, the firm whose former CEO is Vice President Dick Cheney and whose chief lobbyist is Joe Allbaugh.

Hurricane Katrina is the anti-9/11 in its divisive political effect, its unearthing of underlying domestic problems, and its disorienting impact on the president and his administration. Yet, in other ways, the failure of government before the hurricane struck is reminiscent of the failures leading into 9/11. The demotion of FEMA resembles the demotion of counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke. In both cases, the administration ignored clear warnings.

In a conversation with a former diplomat with decades of experience, I raised these parallels. But the Bush administration response evoked something else for him. "It reminds me of Africa," he said. "Governments that prey on their people."

This story has been changed since it was originally published.

By Sidney Blumenthal

Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

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