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The Price of Incompetence

By Gerald Rellick  Posted by Jason Miller (about the submitter)     Permalink
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In 1988 Michael Dukakis ran for the presidency on the theme, "It 's all about competence. " Dukakis led George H.W. Bush in the polls throughout much of the campaign, but then made the mistake of posing in full gear atop an Army tank as it rumbled along the terrain. It 's true that he looked silly, but to any intelligent observer it was just more campaign hokum and high jinx, another uneventful day for reporters on the boring campaign trail. But it didn 't play out that way. The media pounced on the event, and the Bush campaign played it for all it was worth, which it turned out was a lot. Yes, there was the Willie Horton ad and CNN 's Bernard Shaw 's mean-spirited question in the debates about a hypothetical rape of Dukakis 's wife, but the tank photo was the death knell of the Dukakis campaign.

Dukakis was wrong: The campaign was not about competence; it was about appearances. He miscalculated the intelligence of the American media and the American public. So, we might ask, was George W. Bush any less foolish looking when he landed on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in full flight gear two months after the start of the Iraq war, pronouncing "Mission Accomplished? " The difference was that Bush 's stunt was orchestrated by his chief puppeteer, Karl Rove, who understood very well what the lapdog media was eager to feed on. As hokey as it seemed to many, Bush 's photo-op hit the right tone, and by all accounts, was a success.

Karl Rove has by now shown himself to be the Dr. Frankenstein of American politics, and George W. Bush is his monstrous creation. Granted, Rove 's miscreant is new and improved compared to Dr. Frankenstein 's monster better looking and without the bolt through his neck, but just as dumb, and possessing the same language skills as the creature who roamed the Transylvania countryside.

But there is a limit to what even Karl Rove can do, and now the Dukakis theme of competence in government is back in vogue and back to haunt Rove 's creation as never before. We witnessed this in the now-aborted Harriet Miers nomination. While the extreme right wing was focused on the issue of Roe vs. Wade, more moderate and thoughtful conservatives such as George Will, William Kristol and former Reagan speech writer, Peggy Noonan, were incensed at Bush 's obvious cronyism and his disrespect for the stature of the Supreme Court. George Will captured this feeling well when he wrote:

"[Bush] has neither the inclination nor the ability to make sophisticated judgments about competing approaches to construing the Constitution ... Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that Miers's nomination resulted from the president's careful consultation with people capable of such judgments. If 100 such people had been asked to list 100 individuals who have given evidence of the reflectiveness and excellence requisite in a justice, Miers's name probably would not have appeared in any of the 10,000 places on those lists. "


The New Orleans Disaster

A more grievous case of Bush 's cronyism and his indifference to serious governance was the New Orleans hurricane disaster, now seen as the worst natural disaster in American history (not counting George W. Bush 's presidency). The back-to-back hurricanes were the work of Mother Nature, but the disaster relief was in the hands of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headed by Michael Brown, another Bush crony who was woefully unqualified for the job. Before being named to FEMA, Brown had spent 11 years as commissioner for judges and stewards of the International Arabian Horse Association, and he was forced to resign that position under a cloud of suspicion for wrongdoing. His only "qualification " was that he was active in George Bush 's reelection campaign.

As has been widely reported, Brown was clueless on how to deal with the hurricane disaster and was later relieved of duty by Michael Chertoff, the head of Homeland Security. But Brown 's and FEMA 's non-response had already done its damage. A week after FEMA 's failure was evident to most of the world, George Bush, still comfortably ensconced in his five-week vacation in Crawford, Texas, revealed his own cluelessness by praising Brown: "Brownie, you 're doing a heck of a job. " If Brown had been reporting directly to Bush, he would probably still be in charge of FEMA.

The extent to which FEMA 's capabilities were decimated under George Bush is well documented by Walter Brasch in an outstanding piece of research and writing (Ref. 1). After being incorporated under the new Department of Homeland Security, FEMA 's primary focus became terrorism, and three fourths of its budget is now for terrorism response. Former Clinton FEMA director, Jamie Lee Witt, testified before Congress in March 2004 and expressed his concerns about FEMA 's current ability to respond to natural disasters, the role for which it was originally intended:"I am extremely concerned that the ability of our nation to prepare for and respond to disasters has been sharply eroded. I hear from emergency managers, local and state leaders, and first responders nearly every day that the FEMA they knew and worked well with has now disappeared. In fact one state emergency manager told me, 'It is like a stake has been driven into the heart of emergency management.'"

A factor that greatly exacerbated the New Orleans situation was the large-scale destruction of the Louisiana wetlands, a process started in the Bush-Quayle years, but reversed by the Clinton administration. The recognition of the critical role of the wetlands as a natural source to absorb flood waters goes back to the Nixon administration and the formation of the Clean Air, Water and Drinking Acts of 1970. To cite Brausch again:

"The Clinton Administration used federal funds to buy land in the flood plains and increased wetland protection, slowing commercial development. However, in January 2003, the Bush Administration eviscerated the Clinton-ordered flood plains protection. The new policy allowed development of about 20 million acres of wetlands. "

Opposition to this policy from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers went unheeded. In an interview with MSNBC, Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, former head of the Army Corps of Engineers, stated, "One of the things that always concerned me was the loss of the wetlands along Louisiana's coast, which was a natural storm protection."

One of the most disturbing findings to come out of the New Orleans disaster was that a FEMA analysis of March 2001 had warned of the danger to New Orleans of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane. Writes Brausch:

"A FEMA analysis had warned there were three likely--not possible, but likely--scenarios, each of which would cripple the country. One would be an earthquake in San Francisco, similar or more damaging than the one in 1906. The second would be a terrorist attack upon New York City. The third would be a catastrophic hurricane and flood in the New Orleans area. "


Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001

If all of this sounds eerily familiar to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it should. Then as now, those in charge failed in their responsibilities, most notably, national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice. And in the context of the most recent Bush administration incompetence, it is right and proper to revisit that issue.

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