Trying to Avoid the Finger

The eye of Hurricane Katrina apparently is still swirling 1,088 miles north-northeast of New Orleans. According to the latest Rove Radar Report warning, it is stalled ominously above 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Which explains why President Bush’s top brass and brain trust shifted belatedly but swiftly into damage-control mode in recent days _ seeking to control and shift the political damage away from the boss for what even stalwart Republicans now angrily call a catastrophically failed federal disaster response.

The response by Team Bush has been orchestrated by Bush’s political super-strategist Karl Rove and communications director Dan Bartlett, according to a number of national news reports. So far, Rove’s plan has been a natural-disaster version of his classic political-campaign one-two: (1) Abhor all finger-pointing of blame, (2) then point fingers to shift the blame _ in this case, to the Democratic governor of Louisiana and the Democratic mayor of the city that was New Orleans.

One: On Sept. 1, as tens of thousands were stranded and starving _ and dying _ in squalor in New Orleans, Bush press secretary Scott McClellan declared, quite properly: “This is not a time to get into any finger-pointing or politics or anything of that nature. …We are working very closely with state and local authorities. We’re in close communication with Governor (Kathleen Babineaux) Blanco and other officials on these issues.” The spokesman repeated the point about “close communication” four more times.

Two: Then Team Bush began riding the media circuit. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff acknowledged on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” what the world had seen on television _ that hurricane preparation and evacuation were woefully inadequate. He then declared: “The way that emergency operations act under the law is the responsibility and the power, the authority, to order an evacuation rests with state and local officials. The federal government comes in and supports those officials.”

Bartlett told The Washington Post: “The federal government stands ready to work with state and local officials to secure New Orleans and the state of Louisiana. The president will not let any form of bureaucracy get in the way of protecting the citizens of Louisiana.”

And importantly _ but inaccurately _ a highly placed but anonymous Bush official passed along a dollop of damage control that was published, unfiltered by fact-checking, by The Washington Post: “As of Saturday, Blanco still had not declared a state of emergency, the senior Bush official said.” (Newsweek may have been leaked upon by the same high whisperer, as it reported in its Sept. 12 issue: “Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco seemed uncertain and sluggish, hesitant to declare martial law or a state of emergency, which would have opened the door to more Pentagon help.”)

But wait. One reason the “senior Bush official” sought anonymity was that his damage-control assertion was flat-out false. On Aug. 26, Louisiana’s governor signed a declaration of a state of emergency. In response, on Aug. 27, Bush declared officially a state of emergency in Louisiana and his press office announced: “The president’s action authorizes the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to coordinate all disaster-relief efforts … to provide appropriate assistance for required emergency measures … to save lives, protect property and public health and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe …” (On Sept. 5, The Washington Post printed a correction, but is still protecting the identity of its apparently intentionally misinforming senior Bush leaker.) Former FEMA officials flatly reject the Bush Team’s effort to shift the blame to state and local officials for the federal government’s late action and non-action in Louisiana.

“They can’t do that,” Jane Bullock, who had a 22-year career at FEMA, told the Los Angeles Times, referring to Bush administration attempts to shift responsibility to state and local officials. “The moment the president declared a federal disaster, it became a federal responsibility. … The federal government took ownership over the response.”

In today’s age of global terrorism, Republicans and Democrats alike have begun asking what may be the most important and ominous questions of all.

“If this was a terrorist event, is this the kind of response we would have?” James Lee Witt, President Bill Clinton’s FEMA director, asked in USA Today. And one of Bush’s most vocal champions, Newt Gingrich, may have summed it up best of all, in an interview with the Financial Times: “If we can’t respond faster than this to an event we saw coming across the gulf for days, then why do we think we’re prepared to respond to a nuclear or biological attack?”

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.)