Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Before Night Falls

Aside from asking for donations (see sidebar for link), I have mostly been too upset to post much about Katrina these past few days. But today I want to try to put my emotions aside to discuss a few aspects of the story that have interested me.

First, I must say that I found it heartening that, at least initially, there was such an honest response from so many right leaning thinkers, conservatives, Bush supporters and the media at large. As Laura Rozen noted (
here and here), even the National Review crew over at The Corner were sternly critical of the Bush Administration's inattention, ineptitude and delay (even if they focused more on the PR aspects). In today's New York Post (Rupert Murdoch's conservative tabloid flagship), there was a political cartoon of Bush, cowboy hat in hand, riding on a saddled snail with the acronym "FEMA" emblazoned on its shell into a devastated New Orleans. Pundits like David Brooks and Jonah Goldberg have even let their partisan blinders slip - even if just for one moment of righteous indignation.

Watching the press coverage unfold, I admit to harboring hopes expressed by
Matt Wells of the BBC (via Kevin Drum), who noted, with enthusiasm, the incipient spine sprouting from the press corp's collective brain stem, from Geraldo to Tim Russert and all points in between.

But last week the complacency stopped, and the moral indignation against inadequate government began to flow, from slick anchors who spend most of their time glued to desks in New York and Washington.

The most spectacular example came last Friday night on Fox News, the cable network that has become the darling of the Republican heartland.

This highly successful Murdoch-owned station sets itself up in opposition to the "mainstream liberal media elite".

But with the sick and the dying forced to sit in their own excrement behind him in New Orleans, its early-evening anchor Shepard Smith declared civil war against the studio-driven notion that the biggest problem was still stopping the looters.
It's too early to tell whether Katrina will prove a tipping point for our media, a moment from which they will be transformed into (or reborn as) a real truth seeking and speaking force, but at least for one week they have resembled as much.

The honeymoon between the press and its willingness to speak truth to power might not last long though. The Bush administration has switched into full gear on a damage control operation with such speed and alacrity that one wonders if this is the same group that failed to notice people were languishing at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center without food, water and basic necessities in New Orleans for days - despite the fact that reporters and bloggers had picked up on the fact while the Bush team remained ignorant. Via Amy Sullivan at Drum's place, the Times is reporting:

Under the command of President Bush's two senior political advisers, the White House rolled out a plan this weekend to contain the political damage from the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina.

It orchestrated visits by cabinet members to the region, leading up to an extraordinary return visit by Mr. Bush planned for Monday, directed administration officials not to respond to attacks from Democrats on the relief efforts, and sought to move the blame for the slow response to Louisiana state officials, according to Republicans familiar with the White House plan.

The effort is being directed by Mr. Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, and his communications director, Dan Bartlett. [emphasis added]
Great. What this country needs now is Karl Rove and his politics of mass destruction. It didn't take long for Rove's insidious footprint - dirty tricks and sleazy attacks in tow - to appear around the tragedy in the bayou. Within hours, bits of misinformation began dribbling out of the White House only to be swallowed up by the supposedly liberal media still uncomfortable in its role as a check on political abuses. As Kevin Drum and Stygius noted, the Washington Post reported on this little Roveian tidbit only to be forced to retract it for good reason:

Tens of thousands of people spent a fifth day awaiting evacuation from this ruined city, as Bush administration officials blamed state and local authorities for what leaders at all levels have called a failure of the country's emergency management....As of Saturday, [Louisiana governor Kathleen] Blanco still had not declared a state of emergency, [a] senior Bush official said. [emphasis added].

Hmmm. Is this statement from a "senior Bush official" true? Why no. No it's not:

August 26: Blanco declares a state level state of emergency.

August 27: Blanco asks the president to declare a federal state of emergency for the state of Louisiana.

August 27: Bush declares a federal state of emergency for Louisiana.
Better liars please.
You would have thought the Valerie Plame affair would have led to more discipline from both Rove and his media cohorts. Guess not, but will it matter? We'll see if Mr. Wells was right about he media's tipping point, because this looks more like business as usual. What I fear is that what was a brief window of sunlight shining from both the right and the left, the media and the blogosphere, will be eclipsed by a predictable muddle of he said/she said spin and concealment of the truth. The post-modernist swirl of smoke and mirrors designed to distract, confuse and obfuscate - a tactic I discussed in this post. That is, in fact, Karl Rove's specialty, and what he has been brought in to do.

But before the night falls on our common lucidity, our shared moment of clarity, allow me to highlight some of the honest conservative bloggers that I read on a regular basis - people that I disagree with about much ideologically, but respect and consider to be honest brokers. First, the
Cunning Realist (a fellow New Yorker), who has had a series of incisive and spin-free posts on the subject.

One of the more predictable but still outrageous claims circulating about the disaster in New Orleans is that "they were warned" and "they should have listened to the advice to leave." This is part and parcel of the line of reasoning that blames state and local officials for the scope of the disaster. It is ass-covering revisionist nonsense. Besides the tragically obvious fact that many had neither the financial nor the physical ability to evacuate, what if those levees had been destroyed by a terrorist attack? Exactly what type of warning would New Orleans have expected in that scenario? That must be the standard applied here....And of course it must be the same standard that would apply if a devastating earthquake struck San Francisco, which is the only one of three major disasters predicted by FEMA in 2001---the other two being a terrorist attack on New York and a hurricane in New Orleans---that has not happened yet. Yes, there was indeed prior warning here; what if there had not been? The performance of this administration and the federal government must be judged---at an absolute minimum, even by the blame-the-locals bunch---from the first moment that assistance and rescue became feasible. Or should we just go ahead right now and change FEMA's name to FEMASUC: Federal Emergency Management After Solely Unpredictable Catastrophes? [emph. added]
Next, he addresses the conservatism-gone-wild policies that have included slashing funding for FEMA as well as outsourcing to private industry many of that agency's vital functions.

What's ironic (but obviously insignificant next to the human suffering) is that just as those people in New Orleans were betrayed, so too were conservatives. Because intellectually honest conservatives---and unfortunately that no longer includes the Grover Norquist drown-government-in-a-bathtub types who have become no more than political and economic nihilists in conservative drag---generally advocate a "government shouldn't do much, but what it does must be done well" philosophy. The response to Katrina should have shown conservatism at its best. Those calling themselves conservatives who disagree with this need to explain exactly what they think the federal government should do and why it should exist at all. I happen to think it should not do much more than field a strong military, defend the borders, collect taxes, maintain national infrastructure, enforce laws that are beyond the purview of the states, and respond to historic disasters such as this. But for God's sake, it must do those things competently and not embrace an almost Soviet type of failing-upwards cronyism. The most senior federal officials learning from television reports about thousands of people trapped and dying for days in a single place is not competence.

Of course, all this has ramifications beyond FEMA, DHS and New Orleans. After the past week, can anyone maintain a shred of confidence that "supporting the troops" in any way entails endorsing this administration's command of them?[emph. added]
Speaking of "failing-upwards cronyism" and a lack of competence, the Realist, in a separate post, touches on the qualifications (or lack thereof) of the politically connected mediocrity that is FEMA Director Michael Brown. Get a load of this resume, which supposedly made him a top candidate for heading the nation's primary disaster relief agency post-9/11. Because like, you know, everything changed after 9/11:

Before joining the Bush administration in 2001, Brown spent 11 years as the commissioner of judges and stewards for the International Arabian Horse Association, a breeders' and horse-show organization based in Colorado.

"We do disciplinary actions, certification of (show trial) judges. We hold classes to train people to become judges and stewards. And we keep records," explained a spokeswoman for the IAHA commissioner's office.
Not exactly a relevant practice area huh? But at least Brown did that job well right? Well, not exactly.

Brown was forced out of the position after a spate of lawsuits over alleged supervision failures.

"He was asked to resign," Bill Pennington, president of the IAHA at the time, confirmed last night.
This from the "War President"? From the crowd that brought you "liberals failed to appreciate 9/11"? The "grown-ups"? "Vulcans"? Does someone want to repeat any of that with a straight face. Michael Brown couldn't even handle his job overseeing an equestrian-lovers' association, and Bush says:

"That's the guy I want in charge of the freakin' Federal Emergency Management Agency, because it is only a matter of time before the terrorists strike again on our soil. And when that inevitable terrorist strike happens, or some other national disaster occurs, this country needs Michael Brown at the helm."
Speaking of the criminally inept Michael Brown and the President who loves him,
Greg Djerejian (once again a fellow New Yorker) picks up on this bit from the Times-Picayune:

In a nationally televised interview Thursday night, [FEMA Director Michael Brown] said his agency hadn't known until that day that thousands of storm victims were stranded at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. He gave another nationally televised interview the next morning and said, "We've provided food to the people at the Convention Center so that they've gotten at least one, if not two meals, every single day."

Lies don't get more bald-faced than that, Mr. President.

Yet, when you met with Mr. Brown Friday morning, you told him, "You're doing a heck of a job."

That's unbelievable. [emph. added]
Which made Greg, a Bush supporter himself, see red:

Well, it's not unbelievable, sadly. It has become standard operating procedure with this Administration. Colossal missteps are made (no serious attention paid to what might happen if the levees were breached, no thought of moving to expeditiously evacuate the Superdome, no apprecation [sic] that basic law and order might be grossly imperiled if the city became submerged in floodwaters, no contingency planning for an insurgency in Iraq, no appreciation of the full ramifications of tossing aside the Geneva Conventions) and time and again there is a staggering lack of accountability. Well, here at B.D. we're sick of the empty bear hugs and cutesy nicknames, the circle the wagons damage control mentality, cheap ass-covering and rampant buck-passing, the guitar-strumming and talk of Trent Lott's porch looking all antebellum swell post reconstruction and Kennebunkport 'let them move to Texas' insouciance. Above all else, B.D is sick of the sheer spectacle of grim incompetence that humiliated this nation as New Orleans descended into mayhem reminiscent of wartime Haiti or Liberia...
I applaud Greg's courage and honesty. His brief sojourn off the reservation has angered many of his readers, with some proclaiming that in reaction to his Bush-criticizing heresy, they will no longer patronize his site. It's not easy to go against the grain of group-think. But that's one of the reasons that he and the Cunning Realist are so worth reading on a regular basis - even after the rest of the punditocracy and media empty suits return to business as usual - careful not to disrupt any of the bland and palatable myths and storylines.

(As an aside, if you haven't already, check out
this timeline put together by Kevin Drum. Illuminating.)

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