In the Bush administration, everybody is a comedian

As Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Michael Brown made jokes about his wardrobe.

Published November 3, 2005 4:45PM (EST)

We took the president to task yesterday for joking about the outing of Valerie Plame as U.S. soldiers were being killed in Iraq. We thought the president's ill-timed sense of humor showed a certain lack of sensitivity, but it turns out that -- in the Bush administration, at least -- it's all part and parcel of doing a "heck of a job."

According to e-mail messages just released, FEMA Director Michael Brown was making jokes about his wardrobe as Hurricane Katrina threatened America's Gulf Coast. When Cindy Taylor, FEMA's deputy director of public affairs, told Brown on Aug. 29 that he looked "fabulous," he replied: "I got it at Nordstroms ... Are you proud of me?" Brown followed up an hour later with this: "If you'll look at my lovely FEMA attire you'll really vomit. I am a fashion god." Several days later, as criticism of FEMA began to mount, Taylor offered her boss some sartorial advice: "Please roll up the sleeves of your shirt  all shirts. Even the President rolled his sleeves to just below the elbow. In this cris[is] and on TV you just need to look more hard-working  ROLL UP THE SLEEVES."

The e-mail exchange is one of many from FEMA that Louisiana Rep. Charlie Melancon has posted on his Web site. Other e-mails underscore Brown's failure to respond promptly to the emergency that was then unfolding. When a FEMA employee on the ground in New Orleans reported to Brown on Aug. 31 that thousands of people were gathering in the streets without food and water and that there were estimates that many of the victims of Katrina would "die within hours," Brown's response was this: "Thanks for the update. Anything specific I need to do or tweak?"

At least Brown responded to that e-mail quickly. Another e-mail, reporting an offer of medical supplies, apparently languished in Brown's in box for four days before he responded. To be fair, Brown had a lot on his plate in the early days of Katrina, and it's probably unreasonable to expect him to have acted on every e-mail message he received. That said, the man the president picked to handle national disasters did find time to send e-mail messages aimed at bolstering his reputation in the press -- and at helping his wife find someone to take care of the Brown family dog.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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