Time for Solutions, Not Scapegoats

Well, just when you thought Michael Brown was too inept to manage a two-car funeral, he was smart enough to understand that he couldn’t go back to overseeing the Federal Emergency Management Agency after being removed from directing relief efforts in New Orleans.

So he did the honorable thing and resigned from an office he never should have held in the first place, given the fact that his immediate past experience was as a lobbyist for Arabian horse breeders. It would be easy to say that his appointment to such a sensitive position could only happen in government, but we all know it occurs regularly at the top levels of business, where cronyism is often more important than ability. For that reason, Brown was lucky that his big boss, George W. Bush, has an MBA rather than a law or philosophy degree and understands the importance of the old-boy network.

Now it would be helpful if the president would explain why he stuck out his own neck earlier by praising Brown publicly for doing “a heck of a job.”

At any rate, Brown’s decision to quit may or may not save face for an administration that is desperately trying to dig itself out of a hole that just seems to be getting deeper as the nation continues to focus much of its attention on the plight of one of its most fascinating cities. Also, it would be utterly unfair to nail Brown for all that went wrong in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. There is enough blame to go around, beginning at the local level and reaching into the Oval Office. Before the recriminations end, if ever, the amount of incompetence uncovered will be as monumental as the flood that washed over the city.

The danger to all of us is that Katrina becomes a metaphor for the lack of governmental coherence in meeting the threat of a terrorist attack greater than 9/11. If those planning against such an eventuality can’t handle what God hath wrought, how can they do so with what man has brought about? One can only hope that if there is truth in the adage that something good always comes out of all things bad, it will apply here _ that the wake-up call has been dramatically sounded and that weaknesses in the security and response systems will be identified and addressed.

That will depend on the seriousness of the forthcoming slew of investigations, and whether they are simply aimed at finding scapegoats and achieving political advantage or are serious about improving our chances of surviving a “dirty” bomb or subway gas attack or who-knows-what.

Those who have some longevity in observing Capitol Hill responses to such crises are betting on the former _ not the latter. A better solution might be to appoint an independent commission whose focus would be forward, and not backward, except that whatever was recommended would still have to be acted on by lawmakers, who have their own interests to consider.

So the more practical and cheaper approach probably would be just to let Congress uncork the castor-oil bottle. It will in the end, anyway. Some of that bitter medicine should go down the gullets of Louisiana lawmakers who diverted a record amount of U.S. Corps of Engineer money from flood control to pet projects.

So much of what went wrong is obvious, having been displayed in electronic drama and probing print for days on end now. It is almost a textbook case of bureaucratic fumbling and general governmental indecisiveness _ emanating from the New Orleans city administration and spreading to the governor’s office, the Department of Homeland Security and its FEMA division, and the White House. The president himself seemed unsure how to respond, displaying anger one moment and praising incompetence the next.

There is little doubt that during the initial phases of the tragedy, Bush was ill served by those around him. When he stepped before the cameras on his way to survey the damage and talked about the unacceptability of the federal response, one wished that he had raised his voice in fury and added that his wrath would be felt in no uncertain terms. But that seems not to be his style _ worse luck.

Brown, whose removal from the scene Bush personally ordered and whose resignation he willingly accepted, was probably the first to be held responsible. That there will be others there can be no doubt. Nor should there be any mercy shown, considering the gravity of what has happened and what such bungling portends.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)