Sunday, March 22, 2020

Response to "A Simple Matter of Principle"

(See: Just Above Sunset : A Simple Matter of Principle)

We seem to be back in the days of Hurricane Katrina, back when it took President Bush Jr. a long time to realize that the states were waiting for his help, and when the time came when he would have liked to lecture them on the Conservative theory that was, one could say, “instead of waiting for the federal government to do it, states should clean up their own messes, messes that wouldn’t have happened in the first place had they the sense to not choose to live in a hurricane zone!” —  but then he lost his nerve, and instead turned to “Brownie", the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and told him he was doing a heckofa job, which everybody pretty much knew by then was not all that true.

Remember Brownie? Some background:

Up until 1992, under President George Bush Sr., FEMA had been, according to a congressional report at the time, "widely viewed as a political dumping ground, a turkey farm, if you will, where large numbers of positions exist that can be conveniently and quietly filled by political appointment …” The agency was overseen by Wallace Stickney, who somehow was connected to White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, and was described by the report as “weak" and "uninterested in the substantive programs of FEMA”.

Then when Bill Clinton became president, he appointed James Lee Witt, a guy who had run Arkansas’s version of FEMA, and everything changed. "How did Witt turn FEMA around so quickly?” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked.

"Well, he is the first director of the agency to have emergency-management experience. He stopped the staffing of the agency by political patronage. He removed layers of bureaucracy. Most important, he instilled in the agency a spirit of preparedness, of service to the customer, of willingness to listen to ideas of local and state officials to make the system work better.”

"Witt's eight-year term in office saw approximately 348 Presidentially declared disaster areas in more than 6,500 counties and in all 50 states and the U.S. territories.” Clinton elevated his position to cabinet rank.

In other words, Witt knew how to do the job, because he had experience doing it before coming to Washington.

But when the Republicans took over again in 2000 under GW Bush, FEMA was removed from the cabinet, and things went back to the turkey farm. Bush appointed Michael D. Brown to the job.

Brown’s experience was essentially nil. His resume said he had “emergency services oversight” experience as assistant to the city manager of the city of Edmond, Oklahoma, back while he was in college, but that position was later described by the city’s head of PR as “more like an intern.” While attending law school, he also served as a staff director of the state senate Finance Committee, and after graduation, went into private practice where his boss described him as "not serious and somewhat shallow”.

According to Wikipedia, "Before joining FEMA, Brown was the Judges and Stewards Commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association from 1989-2001. After numerous lawsuits were filed against the organization over disciplinary actions that Brown took against members violating the association's code of ethics, Brown resigned and negotiated a buy-out of his contract."

When Bush Jr. took office in 2001, Brown secured a job as FEMA's general counsel through his longtime friendship with Bush’s campaign manager, fellow Oklahoman and new head of FEMA Joe Allbaugh. Allbaugh’s tenure at the agency was somewhat marred by his publicly questioning whether taxpayers should pay to repair flood damages in flood-prone areas, but also complained when Bush proposed cuts to FEMA and the National Flood Insurance program, a dispute that may have helped bring about his resignation, leaving Brown, who had since been confirmed as deputy director of the department, in the post as administrator.

Brown’s handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 has gone down in the annals of infamy, although, to be fair, he was also made the scapegoat by a bunch of conservatives who didn’t deeply believe that Acts of God such as Katrina, nor the at least 1,245 people who had died as a result, were the responsibility or the proper mission of the national government.

Yes, on September 1, Brown admitted to CNN that he didn’t know that the city was housing thousands of refugees in the Convention Center, and that they were running out of food and water, even though the TV networks had been reporting this for over 24 hours, but I remember hearing Secretary of Homeland Security Michale Chertoff himself learn of this during a live NPR radio interview that same day, and thinking that America was watching a deadly governmental debacle play out live, in real time, before its eyes.

After he was forced out in disgrace, Brownie turned on the White House, blaming them for not listening to his warnings, and pretending not to be aware of the situation. In fact, he also blamed handling of the disaster on FEMA having been folded into Homeland Security, a department whose War on Terrorism focus was ill-suited for saving lives in a natural disaster. There’s reason to argue that Trump’s reorganization of pandemic preparation in the NSC in 2018 had a similar effect, in that hiding it inside the bureaucracy of some other department made whatever warnings of impending doom end up going unheard for too long by those who needed to hear them. Seems to be a Republican form of governance.

Meanwhile, when Obama came along, he returned to the Democratic habit of picking people who took emergency management seriously. In fact, Craig Fugate, his choice for FEMA director, has started training as a volunteer firefighter back when he was in high school, then attended fire college and paramedic school while growing up in Florida, where he went on to serve the state in an emergency management capacity. Rescue was in his blood.

And so Trump waffles between asking the states what’s taking them so long in getting medical supplies, protesting that he’s not some “shipping clerk”, and then whining that he isn't getting the credit he deserves for all the good he's been doing. 

And yes, Trump's “task force” is giving us the impression of competence, that they’re working very hard at getting the tests and masks and respirators and whatnot to where they have to be, they’re also urging us not to get tested "just out of curiosity", so that they can reserve the tests for people who absolutely need to be tested. But in fact, if all the planning that needed to happen had happened the way it should have, everyone in America should be able to be tested, "just out of curiosity”, and in fact, get tested two or maybe three times.

(And while we’re at it, we’re told not to wear a mask unless we’re already showing symptoms, but then also told that maybe four out of five cases of transmittal of the disease comes from persons not showing symptoms, so shouldn’t that mean that everyone should wear masks, just in case they’re sick? But yes, that’s only possible if there are enough masks to go around. Maybe we’ll be ready by the time the next pandemic rolls around. Or maybe not.)

And the fact that Trump seems to think the White House has only a tiny roll in all this pandemic stuff, but somewhat short of “shipping clerk"?

That could be, one might think, a good topic for debate in the upcoming election, unless it once again turns out that not enough of us really care about how good he is at this presidenting stuff after all, since nobody, not even his base, thought he would be all that good at it in the first place.

Isn’t it strange that once everybody realizes you're a congenital and hopeless liar, from that point on, you can do no wrong?

In a White House press briefing the other day, NBC’s Peter Alexander threw Trump a softball, which good reporters usually try not to do because the press isn’t supposed to pander to the president, but then Trump dropped that ball. Trump may think Alexander isn’t a good reporter, but he’s certainly a better reporter than Trump is a president, since the president doesn’t seem to understand that when you insult a reporter for asking some question, you’re simultaneously insulting the public that he or she represents.

And the fact that he doesn’t feel this in his bones is an indication that he’s no good at his job, just like all those Republican FEMA administrators who didn’t get their job because they knew something about how to do the job, but because they knew somebody or other in a high enough place.

In Trumps’ case, his lack of leadership experience has to be the natural result of going through his whole misspent life without ever having to apply for a job, and in turn, never having had to answer to anybody of real power above him — except maybe his own father, which just isn't the same thing.

I hope I eventually survive this pandemic, but strangely, I absolutely have faith that the country will — although I’m still not so confident the country will survive Donald Trump.