Monday, March 27, 2006

Hyman Plays his Usual Game

I wanted to wait until the end of Mark Hyman’s epic miniseries of “Points” about Hurricane Katrina to respond, because getting caught up in the individual responses misses the larger point about the hypocrisy of Hyman’s project.

The first lines of his inaugural editorial reveal the duplicity inherent in the whole series:

Hurricane Katrina is still a political football. In the next four days, The Point will provide documented facts the rest of the media have intentionally ignored.
“Political football” is one of Hyman’s favorite metaphors for the aftermath of Katrina, suggesting (I guess) that the issue is being used for games of political gotcha rather than taken seriously as a topic requiring sober, unflinching reflection. Yet, as we saw in Hyman’s previous Katrina-related editorial just a couple of weeks ago, it is Hyman who treats the topic as a “political football,” accusing New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin (a Democrat) and Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco (a Democrat) of complicity in the deaths of 1,000 people, while praising Republican governors in Florida and Mississippi and ignoring the federal government’s actions (or lack thereof), other than the feeble statement that sometimes “federal bureaucracies” don’t respond effectively.

And what are we to make of the line, “documented facts the rest of the media have intentionally ignored”? Does Hyman honestly believe there’s been some sort of media wide conspiracy to hush up dramatic facts about Katrina? This takes the canard of the “liberal” media (a dopey idea in itself) and exaggerates it into a cartoonish parody.

The two most appalling claims Hyman makes in his attacks are that Ray Nagin “intentionally” delayed an evacuation of New Orleans and that Kathleen Blanco cared more about money than saving lives.

That word “intentionally” comes up again, and again we’re left to wonder what Hyman means by it. One can argue about when a mandatory evacuation of the city should have been ordered and criticize Nagin for not ordering it at the most opportune time, but the word “intentionally” insinuates that for some reason Nagin chose not to order an evacuation even though he knew it would cost lives. Why would he do such a thing? Even Hyman can’t dream up a rationale for this, so he doesn’t bother trying. In fact, the quotations Hyman cites as proving Nagin’s malevolence actually reveal the mayor pointing out an obvious concern: if everyone from the governor on down immediately called for a mandatory evacuation, the result could be chaos and gridlock, leaving tens of thousands stranded when Katrina made landfall.

Should a more coherent evacuation plan been in place and ordered sooner? Probably. But the nauseating suggestion that Nagin intentionally put the people of New Orleans in danger is pathetic political football playing at its dirtiest.

Hyman’s accusation that Blanco put “money first, citizens’ safety later” is every bit as loathsome. The “proof” Hyman offers are Blanco’s request for federal money in the days just before Katrina hit. Hyman frames this as if Blanco was asking for money to use to redecorate the governor’s mansion rather than to prepare her state for a hurricane. It also ignores the fact that Blanco asked the White House not just for additional funds, but for “everything you’ve got.” And it ignores the fact that Blanco didn’t get everything they had—not even close. In fact, Blanco
couldn’t even manage to get a few minutes of the president’s time on the phone as the crisis began to unfold.

And what about the president? It’s a bit difficult to say exactly what was going on in the White House during the storm, since the Bush
administration has refused to release documents concerning the federal response to Katrina. In contrast, Governor Blanco released over 100,000 documents about her administration’s response, including everything from government reports to hastily scrawled notes.

So much for accountability and personal responsibility.

One thing we *do* know is that Bush lied about no one anticipating the breach in the levees in New Orleans (something he claimed on national television in the aftermath of the hurricane). As it turns out,
he was told about the danger to the levees during a briefing that was caught on tape.

Even a Republican Congressional investigation found that the federal government made major mistakes in responding to Katrina.

But that’s not what’s so stomach turning. Certainly, government officials at all levels made mistakes when it came to preparing for and reacting to Katrina. No one can deny that. And given the magnitude of the disaster, it would be foolish to think any response would have gone without error or mistake.

The more important issue is how to handle these mistakes and learn from them. And that’s where Bush and his supporters commit their most grievous crime. Sure, the Bush administration
cut funding for the levees in New Orleans, but that could be chalked up as a mistake in judgment, not a flaw in character. The administration knew well ahead of landfall what havoc Katrina might bring, but a lack of adequate response could be a result of poor coordination with state and local officials. And sure, other presidents have acted far more decisively and responsibly in similar situations, but hey, mistakes happen.

The larger issue is one of character—something that shows up most glaringly in Bush’s actions after Katrina. Bush, as we have seen, has lied about what he knew about Katrina and done everything he could to hamper those who want to investigate how and why mistakes were made. While Blanco and Nagin certainly share responsibility for mistakes they made, they haven’t stonewalled the way the Bush administration has. And in the case of Blanco, she’s gone out of her way to make her own actions and those of her administration as transparent and open to scrutiny as possible. Would that our brave wartime president had even one vertebrae’s worth of her backbone.

And as for Hyman, ever the Bush apologist, he aids and abets Bush’s dereliction of responsibility by doing exactly what he accuses others of doing: playing political games with a disaster rather than calling for an open investigation of the entire response to Katrina at all levels.

Again, so much for personal responsibility.

And that’s The Counterpoint.


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