Nearly half a year after federally built levees crumpled around New Orleans, the Bush Administration is facing a new storm of its own making. In recent weeks it has proved itself as incapable of managing the Congressional inquiries into its post-Katrina actions as it was of managing the hurricane response itself. But there’s one difference: In this new storm, at least, one gets the impression that Team Bush is doing its very best.
Here’s one way you can tell they’re trying: Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman is on message. If you want to discern the White House’s talking points, it always pays to check out Coleman, and the Katrina hearings are no exception. On February 10 Coleman dutifully sprayed verbal buckshot at both Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, before narrowing in on the day’s star witness: former Federal Emergency Management Agency head Michael Brown. And so two political hacks–one elected, one appointed–turned on each other. Coleman entreated Brown to “put a mirror in front of your face” and “confess your own sins.” But Brown, perhaps realizing that his designated role as fall guy won’t give him much of a boost in his new private-sector career–disaster consulting–refused to play along.
Brown has no defense. He had advanced his appearance before the committee by telling the New York Times that the “real story” is the faulty structure of FEMA, a once-sturdy agency that collapsed when George W. Bush folded it into Homeland Security in 2003. The Administration capped its restructuring by naming inexperienced pals to top positions, with Brown as Exhibit A (Brown skipped this point in his testimony). At the time, Brown crowed that his agency was “FEMA on steroids,” as first reported by Jon Elliston in a 2004 investigation. Now, in front of the committee, Brown blamed the “disconnect” between FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security for the agency’s inability to function when faced with an actual emergency.
But Coleman refused to give up. “You didn’t provide the leadership,” he assailed. “Even with structural infirmities, strong leadership can overcome that. And clearly that wasn’t the case here.” Coleman got that one right, albeit unintentionally. The destruction of New Orleans and the still-climbing official death toll, which now stands at more than 1,300, is the direct consequence of weak leadership from the top–the White House. The flawed federal levee system and the botched response resulted in this country’s most deadly man-made disaster. The waters have long since receded, but, despite occasional vague murmurs of affection from Bush, New Orleans is still struggling to function as a modern American city. Nobody’s confessing anything here. The travesty deserves an independent investigation and full participation from the White House. Instead, it received Republican-led inquiries and no direct access to the President.