Cashing in on the blame

Margaret Carlson

Los Angeles Times

September 15, 2005

YOU KNOW THE world is out of whack when it takes resume inflation to finally move Michael Brown out of his job running FEMA.

You'd think letting thousands of people suffer and die over four days without food, water, medicine or airlifts would have prompted President Bush to declare, "Brownie, you're fired." Instead, it wasn't until Time magazine reported that Brown's bio listed him as assistant city manager rather than assistant to the city manager that Brown was given the heave-ho from running Katrina operations on Sept. 9. He resigned from FEMA three days later.

But the world is really strange when the person responsible finally accepts responsibility and that's headline news. "Bush Accepts Blame for Slow Hurricane Response," heralded the Los Angeles Times, and congratulations to the president were all over TV. You'd think he had said he was going to get rid of anyone on whose watch those 34 invalids at St. Rita's Nursing Home died.

Hardly, but Bush has realized that stubborn denial coupled with boyish mannerisms aren't enough when we can see the bodies floating in black water and feel the misery of people who trusted the government to help them.

Bush's change of strategy must mean that Karl Rove, absent in the early days of the disaster with kidney stones, is back on the job. A student of history, he would remember how President Kennedy subverted the blame game by admitting he had blundered at the Bay of Pigs. He proved you can diminish blame by taking responsibility.

We know Bush isn't entirely responsible for the Katrina disaster, although he has a lot to answer for, but by taking the JFK route, he's begun to put the finger-pointing behind him and the spending of $62 billion in congressionally authorized Katrina cash ahead of him. Bush has definite ideas on how the money should be spent. Although the billions may not be awarded to Halliburton without competitive bids — as was the case in Iraq — he wants as few governmental strings attached as possible.

Forget that it was sidelining government that exacerbated the devastation of the Gulf Coast in the first place. Bush wants a suspension of pesky government regulations. He wants to suspend wage supports for construction workers but give tax breaks to owners. This likely means that Bush pal Joe Allbaugh, the inexperienced head of FEMA before Brown, will get even more business for his consulting firm, which advises clients including Halliburton subsidiary KBR (formerly known as Kellogg, Brown & Root) on how to pitch their disaster relief services, according to the Washington Post.

Bush also wants to suspend environmental regulations — a deep desire of his in all matters — in the rebuilding of New Orleans, brushing aside that it was partly the erosion of wetlands that made the city so vulnerable.

And Bush wants the disgraceful Department of Homeland Security to monitor much of the spending. In creating the first Cabinet department in 13 years, Republicans gave Homeland Security a $30-billion budget to set up just the type of bloated, top-heavy, wasteful bureaucracy they have railed against for years, while doing little more than creating long lines at airports.

Although no expense is spared, Homeland Security isn't making people feel safer, according to my unscientific survey. Of the dozens of people I asked, not one knew what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. If you think plastic sheets, duct tape and color charts went out with former Secretary Tom Ridge, take a look at one of the department's much-touted websites, http://www.Ready.gov . You'll learn that our current state of alert is yellow (elevated), and it's a good idea to visit a Home Depot. This is what stands between those of us without a helicopter and personal generator, and chaos.

I hope that Bush doesn't take responsibility again in his speech tonight. If he gets his political footing back, I fear that all the riches to flow from this disaster will go to the people building the hotels, not cleaning them; to the swift and the strong and the entrepreneurial; to those who got out in the first place, and not to those left behind.