KATRINA: Brownie’s Fatal Mistake

This video clip from Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN is pretty interesting stuff. In it, former FEMA director Michael Brown, whose performance during Katrina five years ago will be the subject of criticism and infamy probably forever, calls it a “fatal mistake” for the Bush administration to have spouted talking points about all the good FEMA was doing in the aftermath of the storm without acknowledging the problems they were facing. Feel free to watch, and we’ll have some analysis after the jump:

Now, we’re not fans of Michael Brown. There are things he obviously doesn’t want to talk about where his Katrina portfolio is concerned. The guy seemingly spent a whole lot of time worrying about how he looked on TV and what restaurant he was going to be dining at when, frankly, he should have been on camera in a sweat-soaked T-shirt with bags under his eyes and a peptic ulcer from pizza delivery and Burger King chowdowns in a command trailer.

That said, he does make good points.

Public relations is not, and has not been for some time, about the truth. Everything important is spun. Candor and honesty are considered evidence of stupidity these days, and while I wouldn’t say Brownie’s Katrina legacy was ruined by the fact that he had to spout lines handed down from the press office he’s right when he bemoans the fact that he looked like a dipstick by vomiting platitudes in the midst of a general nightmare.

And I can feel his pain about the “Yer doin’ a great job, Brownie” line that Bush laid on him. He’s correct that his facial expression conveyed the sense that he’d just had the equivalent of something large and uncomfortable entering his nether regions. If he’s not full of it about having just come from a meeting in which he laid out a laundry list of all the things that were screwed up with the response to Katrina when the presser where that line was born, then even if you think he’s an irredeemable dunce you can still sympathize.

Brown is also correct in noting that all the PR spin had the precise opposite effect it was designed to have. While the Bush White House was trying to portray an image of progress and control, media avails like the ones Brown was giving and CERTAINLY the ones his boss Michael Chertoff was giving conveyed instead a total lack of perspective or understanding of the situation on the ground. The legacy media, engaged as it was in an effort to destroy the president’s popularity anyway, seized on that disconnect and used it to feed their own narrative.

It’s worth noticing that while the Bush administration doesn’t come off well in its handling of Katrina there has been something of a rehabilitation. Bush bested the current president 50-35 among Louisianians in a recent survey comparing the handling of Katrina to the Gulf Oil Spill, and the state has been on a Republican voting binge ever since the storm – Mary Landrieu and Buddy Caldwell are the only two Democrats to win major statewide races in the last five years and even New Orleans’ congressional district flipped to the GOP. I would submit that while all this would have happened anyway, it was a king’s ransom in federal money and, perhaps most importantly, the institution of a strong figure on the ground folks could rally around like Gen. Russell Honore – which Brown also notes is important in handling crises like this – which helped mitigate the damage. Honore was not a spewer of talking points, for certain; the press flacks probably had aneurisms when he uncorked his memorable “stuck on stupid” line.

And along the same lines, the storm about Obama’s handling of the oil spill has largely dissipated. Why? Two reasons. First, obviously, BP managed to stop the leak at the Macondo well and as it turns out Mother Nature has managed to remove an enormous, almost miraculous, amount of that oil – making the size of the calamity a lot less than originally advertised. But second, the president and his White House flacks stopped trying to micromanage the thing for political purposes. That was an unmitigated disaster; virtually every aspect of the president and his team’s interference in the spill made him look worse, and it also called attention to the fact that he wasn’t getting anything done.

Eventually, Obama’s people realized they were making the hole deeper, and so they got out of the way and let Thad Allen take over. Allen isn’t perfect by any means, but he’s at least on the ground and dealing daily with the players involved. There is now an organizational chart which, while it might not make sense, doesn’t reflect the top-down arrogance-induced chaos we saw in May and June and assisted in trashing the president’s poll ratings.

The gist of all this? While Brown probably was never in a position to fix anything he might well have at least done us the service of pointing out some of the flaws in our conventional thinking about crisis management. We have two expectations which set our leaders up for failure; first, that we’re going to be told that everything which needs to be done is being done, that there are no problems which can’t be overcome and we’re in control, and second, that the “head man” is going to provide all the answers and demonstrate perfect leadership.

Both are dead wrong.

Crisis communication shouldn’t be about assuming control of a disaster; it should be about defining the task and laying out a strategy to deal with it. That might invite criticism, but at least it’s honest. And coupled with the flexibility and humility to accept input from those affected, perhaps it might bring the public at large into a collective effort to recover from a hurricane, an oil spill, an earthquake or whatever.

And this business of expecting solutions and leadership from the very top is absolute poison. It’s poison when you’re talking about the economy – as Obama’s fiddling about with bailouts and stimulus is proving for the umpteenth time – and it’s poison when you’re talking about a crisis. Politicians don’t know how to handle these things, and everybody knows it. Successful command of them involves relying on the people who do. Obama himself said “I can’t plug the leak.” Neither could the Bush White House. But both administrations initially made the mistake of attempting to “own” their respective Gulf crises, rather than focus on putting quality people in charge and then giving them the resources and freedom to get the job done.

I think it was Ronald Reagan, though he wasn’t likely the first, who said “It is amazing how much you can accomplish when it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.” That quote shows the value of humility in important situations. Brown might not be the best ambassador for humility given his Katrina reputation, but some of what he says might contribute to our understanding of how these incidents are best handled.

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