Monday, September 12, 2005

What's that on the road? A head?
Brownie is gone and Bush has already appointed a successor. I actually feel a little sorry for Brown, but only a little. On one hand, Brown is no more than some hapless fool who let himself get into something way over his head and stayed too long. On the other hand, that something got a lot of people killed. So, he's out. We're glad. Let's put him behind us and look ahead.

Unfortunately, when I look ahead, I see more Mike Brown. Though his service to the people of the United States may be over, his service to George Bush and the Republican Party is not. The Party still needs Brownie to play a role in their butt covering narrative.

A week ago, Bush and his handlers had no idea how big their problems were. They tried narrative number one, the Mad Magazine Gambit (also known as the charm offensive). Bush was shoved in front of the cameras to deny that there even was a problem, to smile his "what me worry" smile, to reminisce about drinking himself into oblivion when he was younger, and to say that it's all for the best because Trent Lott will get a fantastic porch out of it. Bush had to say Brownie did "a heck of a job" because to say anything else would be to admit how bad the whole team had failed. Bush appointed Mike Brown and the rest of the self-proclaimed grown-ups who should have been on top of this.

This gambit not only didn't work, but it backfired. It angered people. Bush came across like a callow frat boy, with no empathy, and no grounding in the reality the rest of us have to live in. How could Bush deny that there was a problem? One of the great cities of the world was under eight feet of water with hundreds of thousands homeless. New Orleans isn't Iraq, so distant that they can simply say it's not that bad and the press isn't telling you the good parts. New Orleans is right here before our very eyes. We know it's bad.

Bush and his handlers brought out narrative number two, the Rove Gambit (also offensive, but with no charm). Talking points were distributed telling the loyalists in the Party to attack the Democrats and attack the press. This time they admitted that there was a problem, but that it was all the Democrats' fault. The federal government provided no help because the bad Democrats didn't say "mother may ?" when they requested help.

This gambit failed because, for four years, Bush and his handlers have been telling us that only Bush caqn keep us safe. It's not believable for us to suddenly find out that we're not safe and to have Bush tell us that the Democrats were supposed to be keeping us safe.

Still in attack mode, Bush tried to say that it was all the "bureaucracy's" fault. This also failed the sniff test. The bureaucracy (formerly known by the much more positive name "the civil service") is all of those people who work for the various departments of the federal government. That is, they are the executive branch. Who leads the executive branch? Who is--shall we laughingly say--responsible? That would be George W. Bush, the CEO president.

Rove's hatchet men can't very well go around saying it's all Bush's fault. They need someone to play the role of Bush-betrayer. Which brings us back to Mike Brown.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Though the Bush administration is ruthless and completely without scruples, they have never just tossed someone to the wolves. At least not in the way that Bush's closest parallel among modern presidents, Richard Nixon, would have. Nixon had no problem firing cabinet members or even sending his own Vice President to jail for a moment's advantage.

Bush's supporters like to use this reluctance to portray their boss as loyal to a fault. Loyalty might be involved, but I don't think that it is the main personality trait involved in his reluctance to sacrifice his allies. Remember that creepy moment during the debates when Bush was unable to name any mistakes he had made as president? This was supposed to be a softball question that allowed him to display his humility. But Bush has no humility and this was painfully obvious as he stuttered and made faces before finally spitting out something about maybe he could have made some better appointments. The psychology he revealed was stunning. Not only was he unable to admit to an error, but the closest he could come was to say his only error was in trusting people who disappointed him. This was a clear slam at Paul O'Neill and other members of the administration who had dared to disagree with their boss.

In the past I've compared Bush to a certain type of school bully, who uses the power of conferring or withholding social acceptance the same way other bullies use physical violence. These bullies are almost invariably rich and the leaders of a desirable clique. Bush's idea of working together never involves compromise on his part; it involves allowing others to have a part in his successes. When he meets with foreign leaders, he never listens to their concerns: he tells them what he's planning so that they may support him. I'm sure he views this as magnanimous. In the schoolyard, he's the golden boy who draws out the suspense in picking of team members so that the last picked will be relieved and grateful for his favor.

A normal bully would have no hesitation in destroying someone who failed to live up to their royally conferred confidence. But Bush has his almost pathological reluctance to admit error. And admitting that someone failed him means he must admit that he was mistaken to have trusted them in the first place.

I have no doubt that Brown will be scapegoated and the narrative will involve a great deal of pity for poor Bush--the real victim here--who was let down by someone he trusted. It will be tricky to strike the right balance in all of this. How much sympathy can people spare for poor trusting George when real people are experiencing real pain. Maybe they'll combine the betrayal narrative with a swift and decisive Bush narrative, pointing out that, after only five years, he finally appointed someone who understands this job.

As much as it might be tempting for us to take just a moment to give Brown one last kick, we should resist the temptation and keep our attention focused on the man and the Party that put him at the head of FEMA. No sympathy, no forgiveness, and no amnesty for Bush and his crowd.

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