America needs a government as good as the best of the American people—the police officers, firefighters, soldiers, civic leaders and volunteers who showed courage and gave sacrificially to meet human needs in an overwhelming crisis.
What America has is a badly flawed government, a government where spin counts for more than substance, where country club connections trump competence and where privatization spits in the eye of the public good.
The slow-responding Bush administration began spinning as soon as it realized how deep the water was, the TV coverage wasn’t going away and the public was furious.
One spin came from President Bush, who finally arrived late in the crisis zone. “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees,” he misspoke.
A Times-Picayune news story reported that the director of the National Hurricane Center briefed officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security before the storm hit the coast about the potential disaster, including the overtopping of the levees. Both the director of FEMA and Homeland Security were part of the briefings.
“We were briefing them way before landfall,” said NHC’s director. “It’s not like this was a surprise.”
Another spin is the administration’s continuous use of the phrase “natural disaster” when referring to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Blaming nature diverts attention from human responsibility—responsibility being one of Bush’s watchwords that he now wants to push away from the Oval Office to state and local offices.
Natural disaster sounds better than “man-made disaster.” Shifting the blame to ole Mother Nature is better than admitting governmental neglect and abandonment or federal government’s failure to protect Americans.
Katrina was a natural disaster. But it was more than a natural disaster. New Orleans’ catastrophe resulted from the downgrading of FEMA and dumbing down its leadership, the lack of funding for the levees, reduced funding for the Army Corps of Engineers’ flood control projects, the loss of wetlands and the failure to protect the poor, the weak, the ill and the people of color.
Perhaps the worst spin was the president’s visit to New Orleans.
Senator Mary Landrieu issued a press release on Saturday after the hurricane struck and the levees broke about accompanying President Bush on a tour of the distressed area. She said that she saw “a real and significant effort to get a handle” on the breach at the 17th Street levee.
Flying over the same spot less than 24 hours later, Landrieu said, “It became apparent that yesterday we witnessed a hastily prepared stage set for a presidential photo opportunity; and the desperately needed resources we saw this morning reduced to a single, lonely piece of equipment.”
Joined at the hip of administration spin is the administration’s commitment to country club connections over competence.
The Boston Herald first reported that the head of FEMA, Mike Brown, got his job from his college roommate, who managed Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign. Before joining FEMA, Brown was forced out from a job as a commissioner for an organization that ran horse shows. Brown spent 11 years heading up the International Arabian Horse Association, an organization that kept records and certified show judges.
Running a show-horse organization hardly qualified him to head FEMA, as evidence by Brown’s performance of ignorance and excuse making.
In a display of frat-house shallowness, Bush said, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”
Bush’s support of his FEMA director was cold comfort to those whose aged family members drowned in nursing homes.
The highly criticized Brown heads a federal fraternity house where five of the eight top officials are frat brothers—political cronies—advance men who know more about blowing up balloons and whooping up white crowds at presidential rallies than disaster relief.
One of Brown’s clueless cronies and spinmeisters, Patrick Rhode, FEMA’s deputy director, said the organization’s performance was “probably one of the most efficient and effective responses in the country’s history.”
Worse than the political spin and cronyism, however, is the conservative movement’s idolatrous worship of privatization, an anti-government philosophy that believes the private sector is more perfect than the public sector and that private gain is more important than public good.
“My goal is to cut government in half in 25 years to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub,” said Grover Norquist, the field marshal of the Washington conservatives.
Given the failure of government and the mounting death tolls from drowning, Norquist may have seen his rhetorical wish.
Dumping good government began within a few months of Bush’s inauguration. His first FEMA chief, the same man who hired his recently fired college roommate Mike Brown, talked about privatizing FEMA.
“Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into … an oversized entitlement program,” he said. “Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level.”
One example of FEMA privatization is Innovative Emergency Management, which received a half-million dollar contract to develop a “catastrophic hurricane disaster plan for Southeast Louisiana and the City of New Orleans.”
A few days after Katrina struck and the levees broke, IEM took down its “catastrophic hurricane disaster plan” press release, trying to hide its failure.
From privatizing FEMA to privatizing Social Security to privatizing security forces in Iraq, we have witnessed a relentless effort to strangle good government. We’ve also witnessed the results of those efforts on the Gulf Coast.
America needs, wants, a good government; a government as good and kind as the best of the American people.
Robert Parham is executive director of the BaptistCenter for Ethics.