The failures of government during the Katrina disaster were manifest. There was no lack of precedent. It doesn't take a rabid partisan to recognize the contrast between the multiple failures of federal disaster relief during successive Republican administrations and effectiveness during Democratic presidencies. Surely it cannot be entirely a matter of personality.
We can achieve a certain sympathy for public officials trapped by their own policies. A philosophy that says government can only be a problem does not provide an ideal organizing principle for an agency that saves lives. Some of the public demonstrations of calloused disregard for human suffering could be seen as the inevitable result of disorganization and unpreparedness.
FEMA had been a shining star during the Clinton administration. Bill Clinton had pretty much brought it to life. But the incoming Bush administration had a famed low regard for all things Clinton. From food and drug regulation to warnings about al Qaeda, Clinton preoccupations were regarded with amused dismissal by ascendent conservatives. A special unit of the FBI had been established to analyze recent actions of terrorists, anticipating possible points of attack. It was disbanded with derision. The FBI was not a "Federal Bureau of Analysis."
FEMA was no exception to the more general dismissive view. It was relegated as the final staffing point for political loyalists needing employment. Competence was not a consideration.
The appointee as the new head of the agency was a poster child for the new approach. The previous high point in the career of Michael Brown was his tenure as Judges and Stewards Commissioner of the Arabian Horse Association. He was commended for his strict enforcement of rules regarding equine surgery.
In his new job leading an agency assigned the task of human rescue, he was a lost soul. If he had simply been in over his head, sympathy for his helplessness would be an easy assignment. But of everyone involved with the tragedy of Katrina, he is perhaps the hardest one for whom to find any mitigation. Email correspondence later revealed a pattern that went beyond startling into the realm of shock. He leaps from the pages of any dictionary under the heading of sociopath.
He worried endlessly, agonizing over priority decisions. He sent urgent messages to those he trusted for critical advice. What shirt should he wear to his next television appearance? Should he button the cuffs? Or should he roll up the sleeves?
As those interviews shared television screens with pictures of the New Orleans Superdome, the makeshift shelter of last resort for those who escaped raging waters, he begged for insight on what he should do about the next crisis: What restaurant would be a suitable dining place for someone of his rank?
It was a Nero heroism at the burning of Rome. If Brown had possessed a violin, he would have been fiddling at the edge of the flooding. The magnitude of the tragedy was all that kept Brownie's performance from becoming a comedy routine. There is little humor to be found in death through careless neglect.
He resigned month later, and we can hope that God will bestow on him a blessing for leaving so soon.
Michael Brown is not beyond learning from his experience. He is a wiser man, educated by the harsh and bitter trials of the past. He offers his perspective as Sandy pounds the Northeast regions. He tries to be gentle in his criticism of President Obama. But it is clear to him that the leader of the Republic is off to a bad start.
The President went into action as the storm gathered its astonishing force and approached populated areas. Obama held press conferences and launched efforts of assistance as state and local officials braced. He was on the telephone to offer assurances of continuous help. His directives within the executive branch were clear. Agencies were to cut red tape. Paperwork and technicalities would not stop the saving of human life.
Michael Brown explained to the Denver Westword Press how the President is doing it all wrong.
Obama, says Brown, has been moving too fast.
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