Bush longs for James Lee Witt, the Clinton man he should have kept.
Sunday, Sept. 4, 2005
You Go to War with the FEMA You Have, Not the FEMA You Might Wish to Have: At last, a tiny bit of good news.If only the feds could get the power back on so people could appreciate it....
Witt and Wisdom: Bush may be pleased with "Brownie," but Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco knows the right man to call when disaster strikes. On Saturday, she hired James Lee Witt to help her state turn things around. Imagine what Witt could do if he still had FEMA behind him. ... 9:32 A.M.
Friday, Sept. 2, 2005
Witt's End: It will take awhile to sort out the nature vs. neglect debate in New Orleans. Bush is taking a great deal of heat for ranching while Katrina flooded, and for the federal government's sluggish response to a crisis of epic proportions. Bush defenders say you can't blame a Category 5 hurricane on him. One of Bush's European critics suggested that even hurricanes could be the President's fault.
During his last great national disaster, on 9/11, the Bush White House was quick to point out that the Director of Central Intelligence was a Clinton holdover, George Tenet. This disaster, it's worth remembering the Clinton man Bush should have kept: longtime FEMA Director James Lee Witt.
What must make this irony especially painful for Bush is that he knew how good Witt was. In fact, Bush knew it coming and going. When he was helping run his father's 1992 re-election campaign, he saw the miserable federal response from FEMA when it was still a dumping ground for political hacks. As a governor, Bush was so impressed by the agency's renaissance under Witt that he singled him out for praise in his first presidential debate with Al Gore:
You know, as governor, one of the things you have to deal with is catastrophe. I can remember the fires that swept Parker County, Texas. I remember the floods that swept our state. I remember going down to Del Rio, Texas. I have to pay the administration a compliment. James Lee Witt of FEMA has done a really good job of working with governors during times of crisis.
That debate moment is remembered more for Al Gore's faulty claim moments later that he, too, had visited those fires in Texas with Witt. Gore had been to disasters with Witt, but not that one, and the Bush campaign spun the exchange to persuade the press that Gore was somehow a serial exaggerator. To compound the irony, FEMA was actually a poster child of Gore's reinventing government crusade – so that a compliment Bush was indirectly paying the Vice President ended up helping seal Gore's demise.
Got Aid?: Such was George W. Bush's luck in those days. According to the transcript, Bush went on to say, "The only thing I knew was to got aid as quickly as possible with state and federal help, and to put my arms around the man and his family and cry with them."
Bruce Reed, who was President Clinton's domestic policy adviser, is CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council and co-author with Rahm Emanuel of The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America.E-mail him at email@example.com. Read his disclosure here.
Photograph of President Bill Clinton and James Lee Witt by Hector Mata/AFP Photo.