Sinking the unsinkable.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Sept. 10 2005 7:25 AM

Hack of a Job

The president learns that a good hack is hard to find.

80_thehasbeen

Hack & Sack: Across America, communities have bravely fought through federal red tape to help find new homes for the victims of Katrina. After its miserable performance under political appointees like FEMA Director Michael Brown, the Bush administration faces another dilemma: Where to relocate all the hacks?

Belatedly, the president took the first step Friday by relieving Brown of his duties and returning him to Washington. According to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Brown will remain as head of FEMA to "manage other disasters"—for example, his career.

Advertisement

In 10 days, Brown went from being another faceless federal bureaucrat to needing the federal witness protection program. More Americans have called for his resignation than ever heard of his able predecessor James Lee Witt. If Bush had stood by his man at FEMA any longer, he would have had to change his nickname from "Brownie" to "The Unsinkable Michael Brown."

But as the Washington Post explains today, Brown isn't the only hack at his agency; FEMA is now home to an entire troop of Brownies. Brown's chief of staff was an advance man for the 2000 campaign. The deputy chief of staff was an advance man for the White House. His predecessor at FEMA had been a Bush campaign consultant in 2000. It's as if they all responded to the same classified, "Must Lack Relevant Experience."

Fire When Ready: Brown wasn't actually fired—that would require the White House and the Department of Homeland Security to admit error. "Michael Brown has done everything he possibly could," Chertoff said. "I want to make sure FEMA continues to be run the way it needs to be." In other words, we have only just begun to fail.

Brown's tragicomic survival parallels the long-running tragic folly of the Department of Homeland Security, Washington's response to the last great national disaster. Bush initially opposed the idea for the wrong reason—in order to protect bureaucratic fiefdoms like the FBI—then changed his mind so he could exploit it for the wrong purpose: pounding Democrats in the 2002 midterm elections.

Cynicism is its own reward. Bush's support for the Department of Homeland Security enabled Republicans to win back the Senate in 2002. If Bush can't find a way out of his Katrina tailspin, the performance of DHS and its FEMA stepchild could cost Republicans the House in 2006.

Ironically, Bush made homeland security a campaign issue in 2002 by turning Democrats against their own bill because he insisted on civil service reforms to make it easier for the agency to fire incompetent workers. Bush forgot to mention his plan to hire incompetent bosses.

Brown & Root: At first glance, Michael Brown would seem to be an even more preventable disaster than the breaching of the New Orleans levees. But protecting the nation from the next Michael Brown is not as easy as it looks. In fact, America has been wrestling with this conundrum since its inception.

The nub of the problem is this: In a democracy, a responsive government must do what the public and their leaders want, not just what the government wants. The last two centuries have been one long experiment in what mix of permanent civil servants and temporary political appointees can best achieve that ideal.

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The End of Pregnancy

And the inevitable rise of the artificial womb.

Doctor Tests Positive for Ebola in New York City

How a Company You’ve Never Heard of Took Control of the Entire Porn Industry

The Hot New Strategy for Desperate Democrats

Blame China for everything.

The Questions That Michael Brown’s Autopsies Can’t Answer

Foreigners

Kiev Used to Be an Easygoing Place

Now it’s descending into madness.

Technology

Don’t Just Sit There

How to be more productive during your commute.

There Has Never Been a Comic Book Character Like John Constantine

Which Came First, the Word Chicken or the Word Egg?

  News & Politics
The Slate Quiz
Oct. 24 2014 12:10 AM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 23 2014 5:53 PM Amazon Investors Suddenly Bearish on Losing Money
  Life
Outward
Oct. 23 2014 5:08 PM Why Is an Obscure 1968 Documentary in the Opening Credits of Transparent?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 6:55 PM A Goodfellas Actor Sued The Simpsons for Stealing His Likeness. Does He Have a Case?
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 23 2014 11:47 PM Don’t Just Sit There How to be more productive during your commute.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 24 2014 7:00 AM Gallery: The Partial Solar Eclipse of October 2014
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.