Blame Game

Reader (and too-rare co-author) Craig continues to be one of the participants here to whom I’m most grateful. He embodies the vanishingly rare combination of a worldview that runs counter to my own, and a willingness to pay attention to my shrill spoutings in order to let me know when he thinks I’ve got something wrong.

Recently he commented:

John, you have mentioned within the text of your postings that you understand that “others” are also to blame, but yet nearly all your postings seem to focus on Bush and his Administration’s real and assumed failures in this tragedy.

The man has a point. I have been focusing on Bush’s errors in connection with this. And other people are guilty of mistakes and misstatements, too.

I caught the video on the Daily Show (yay! the Daily Show is back) where Bush offered his latest talking points. (Norm of Onegoodmove has Daily Show video: George did it; SFGate has a news write-up of the Bush photo op: Bush says he’ll find out what went wrong.) From the latter:

“One of the things people want us to do here is play the blame game,” [Bush] said. “We got to solve problems. There will be ample time to figure out what went right and what went wrong.”

Of course, if anyone is playing a game here, in the sense of consciously pushing a perception-management agenda, it’s the Bush team. They are the Michael Jordans, the Lance Armstrongs, of that game. That very statement of Bush’s is part of a “blame game,” part of the Karl Rove/Dan Bartlett-crafted storyline designed to deflect responsibility for the debacle onto others.

The mainstream media, making good use of its recently rediscovered backbone, has been pushing back pretty hard. Here’s some of the more noteworthy stuff I’ve been reading on the subject lately, from both the MSM and others:

Things “went wrong” at all levels in this disaster, and the things that went wrong at the federal level were in many ways the most glaring and inexcusable. As I’ve said before, Bush is not responsible for the fact that there are hurricanes, or for the path that this one took. The indirect contribution to hurricane intensity that some have argued is (or will be) the result of Bush’s policies regarding global warming, is certainly not proven, or even, as far as I can tell, persuasively suggested at this point.

But he is responsible, more than any other single individual, for the federal government’s execution of its mission. That’s why he’s called the “chief executive.” And in this case, the execution of the federal government’s mission sucked.

Bush’s single biggest failure here, I think, was the cronyism that led to there being such a competence vacuum at the top of the federal disaster-relief operation. For the last five years Bush has been consistently staffing the upper reaches of the executive branch, including the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA, with incompetents whose main qualification is that they are good Republicans and/or friends of friends. Calls to immediately fire FEMA chief Mike Brown are very much in order. (See, for example, this story by Ted Bridis: FEMA chief sent help only after storm hit.) And, uncharacteristically for an under-fire Bush minion, there are signs that he might actually be let go (see War and Piece: In an administration in which PR is policy…). But if Brown is fired, it’s important that he be replaced by someone who actually knows what he’s doing, rather than by one of his own current underlings. (See ThinkProgress: Top FEMA deputies make Brown look qualified.)

But to return to the subject I started off talking about, it’s not all about Bush. And as hard as it is for me to do, I’m now going to (temporarily) stop talking about how much he is to blame for all this, and give some attention to other people who have been incompetent and/or dishonest.

Charles Bird at Obsidian Wings makes a compelling case that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin badly bungled the timing and execution of the original evacuation order: At all levels. As Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff said in his Meet the Press appearance last week, the best, and in some ways the only effective way to save the citizens of New Orleans was to get them out of town before the levees broke. And city officials knew they would have a couple of hundred thousand citizens who wouldn’t or couldn’t leave on their own.

It’s not as simple as Bush-supporting webloggers would have us believe; the mere fact that there are satellite photos showing hundreds of city buses drowned in neat rows in their parking lots doesn’t mean it would have been easy, or even feasible, to use those buses to get New Orleans’ poor out of the city ahead of Katrina. But the city government could have, and should have, made the effort. They should have had a better evacuation plan ready to go. Even if they ended up being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the disaster, they should have gone down swinging. It would have made a difference.

Finally, let me offer a couple of corrections of anti-Bush talking points I’ve previously given space to here, and which have turned out not to be what they appeared to be.

First up, the good people at Respectful of Otters and Idealistic Pragmatist have done an impressive job of debunking the story, attributed to German news reports, that Bush’s visit to the disaster area on the Friday after the storm featured stage-prop disaster-relief facilities that were torn down after he left. Nope; that was a random TV viewer’s invention, or perhaps misinterpretation, based on the German broadcast, which featured a local official talking about how the advance team that arrived to clean up the location of a Bush photo op was the first federal assistance they’d received. Details: Lost in translation.

And finally, on the question I raised a few days ago about Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard’s tearful story about his emergency manager’s mother drowning in a St. Bernard nursing home, I think the evidence shows pretty clearly that Broussard was embellishing the story. Readers helpfully pointed me to the following news accounts:

From the MSNBC item:

The man he was talking about is Thomas Rodrigue, who told “Dateline” that his 92-year-old mother was one of 32 elderly people found dead at the St. Rita’s nursing home.

But the 32 people who died at St. Rita’s nursing home didn’t die on Friday; they died earlier in the week, when the floodwaters first inundated the low-lying facility. Rather than being attributable to the federal authorities’ slow response (which was pretty much the point of Broussard’s version of the story), the death of those senior citizens was more the fault of local authorities (who failed to evacuate them) than of federal officials (who wouldn’t have been there in time to rescue them under the best of circumstances).

So, assuming the MSNBC story is accurate, Broussard’s story was at least significantly embellished. The tear-jerking account of the repeated calls to momma were fictional (or at least were displaced from their actual time of occurrence, which would have to have been before or during the storm, not during the several days afterward when FEMA was MIA). And if that part was fiction, it would mean that Broussard, for all the apparent sincerity in his emotional on-air breakdown, was willing to lie in order to make his story work better as political theater, which in turn makes it harder for me to credit the rest of the slow-FEMA-response anecdotes he described.

It would mean that Broussard was playing the blame game, too, using invented details to make a real story of tragedy work better at putting federal authorities on the spot for their slow response. And in the context of a local politician from a devastated area trying to do whatever he could to get those federal resources moving, I have a hard time faulting him for that.

Aaron Broussard didn’t invent the blame game. And he certainly isn’t the only one playing it these days. But if my interpretation of this story is correct, he’s a much better player than I originally gave him credit for.

2 Responses to “Blame Game”

  1. ymatt Says:

    Yeah, when this is over I’m guessing there will be a big helping of blame to lay at the feed of Nagin. Since the disaster, it seems like he’s decided that his role is solely to yell about lack of speedy federal relief. And I agree with that complaint, but shouldn’t he have been pretty damn busy organizing the resources that (at least I hope) he had at his disposal? It comes off as a little bit of up-front “oh shit, I better look innocent here” kind of posturing.

  2. Rise Against Says:

    In a heated exchange, Rep. Christopher Shays asked whether Brown did enough to coordinate the response.

    “What would you like for me to do, congressman?” Brown asked the Connecticut Republican.

    “That’s why I’m happy you left,” Shays said, “because that kind of, you know, look in the lights like a deer, tells me that you weren’t capable to do the job.”

    Brown said FEMA is limited in the role it can play, adding that he wasn’t a “dictator” and couldn’t make state or local officials do anything.

    “I guess you want me to be the superhero that is going to step in there and suddenly take everybody out of New Orleans,” he said.

    “No. What I wanted you to do was do your job of coordinating,” Shays responded.

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