Miracle worker.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Sept. 4 2005 4:05 PM

Miracle Worker

Bush longs for James Lee Witt, the Clinton man he should have kept.

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Clinton, too, had learned the importance of disasters, coming and going. He blamed his 1980 defeat on Jimmy Carter's botched handling of a crisis that dumped boatloads of Cuban refugees on Arkansas. In 1992, he watched another President fumble a series of crises, from Hurricane Andrew to the riots in South Central Los Angeles.

During the L.A. riots, I spent three days holed up in a hotel trying to boil a dozen advisers' input into a Clinton speech on race, looting, and presidential neglect. The view from my hotel room: the French Quarter in New Orleans. Clinton began the speech by saying, "They wrote me something to say here, but I threw it away" – then proceeded to give a typically brilliant sermon on race in America.

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Clinton knew that in times of crisis, he didn't need a speechwriter – he needed James Lee Witt. As governor, Clinton had put Witt in charge of reinventing Arkansas's emergency management system. When he became President, Clinton not only brought Witt with him, but elevated FEMA to Cabinet level.

Before Witt came along, FEMA was a lackluster agency under abysmal political management. As Donald Kettl of Brookings has written, the old FEMA was a laughing stock: "Every hurricane, earthquake, tornado and flood, the joke went, brought two disasters: one when the event occurred, and the second when FEMA arrived."

People in Washington assumed that since Witt came from Arkansas, and they'd never heard of him, he must be another hack. But in disaster after disaster, he turned the agency's reputation completely around. Before Rudy Giuliani, there was James Lee Witt.

Clinton kept Witt busy: In eight years, he declared a record 348 disasters. As they proved in Oklahoma City and countless other occasions, Clinton and Witt understood that if there's ever a time people need a federal government and a President, it's in times of disaster.

Hack Attack: In 2001, despite his praise for Witt, Bush returned to the old FEMA model. He turned the agency over to Joe Allbaugh, his campaign manager. Allbaugh left in 2003 for a more lucrative disaster gig, as a lobbyist for reconstruction contracts in Iraq.

Now FEMA is a tiny subsidiary of the mammoth Department of Homeland Security. It's too soon to tell whether DHS will become a dumping ground for hacks. But considering how Bush turned it into a phony partisan issue in the 2002 campaign, DHS deserves honorary status as a hack department. Let's hope it learns not to act like one. ... 3:11 P.M. (link)

We Polked You in '44, and We Shall Pierce You in '52: One of the more unfortunate verbs in the English language—to bork—now has company. Today's Washington Postjoins other news organizations in popularizing a verb that will strike equal fear in conservatives and linguists alike: "John Roberts, though, may be well on his way to being 'soutered.' " It's a double whammy for William Safire.

The White House prefers its nominees soothing, not soutered. Last month, a White House spokesman reassured the Post that Roberts "continues to have breakfast with his children and wife. … They have dinner together as a family. And he reads to [his children] before they go to sleep." The White House owes Post editors a thank you for clarifying that Roberts reads to his children, not to his wife. The article didn't say what he reads them—let's hope it's not Prep.

But wait: A cafeteria worker at the federal courthouse where Roberts works told the Post that he always orders a bagel and cream cheese or an omelet. That sounds suspiciously like breakfast!