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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

My president is Jed Bartlet

or, Is there a ribbon he could cut? Make him look presidential?

Reflecting on the last two weeks of hurricane Katrina, the press coverage, and the blame game as played by all sides, one overriding image keeps coming back to me: Martin Sheen, sitting on a cot in a midwestern school gymnasium, speaking to victims of a terrible tornado.

The plot of the episode of "The West Wing" is particularly foggy in my memory--I don't think I've seen it seen it was first-run--but the plot involved the fictional President Bartlet's insistence both that he go to the disaster site, and, once there, his refusal to leave. Bartlet's staff, exasperated, had to re-arrange a whole day's schedule to accomodate Bartlet's empathy and his take-charge attitude.

I have no idea what the death toll was in that fictional tornado, nor do I recall whether Bartlet's FEMA was as johnny-on-the-spot as we all hope FEMA can actually be in such a circumstance. But what I do recall was Bartlet's firm belief that it was his responsibility as president to make sure that something got done.

It is in striking contrast, then, with Bush's anemic response to Katrina. Whether or not real presidents can be seriously expected to meet the high expectations set by Jed Bartlet, it is clear that Bush did not insist that something got done. Barbara O'Brien, one of my daily reads, quotes from varied sources to paint a picture of Bush's, well, insistence on nothing:
[Time's] Mike Allen writes that former aides describe "enormous pressure on White House officials to take only the most vital decisions to Bush and let the bureaucracy deal with everything else." A "highly screened information chain" keeps Bush in a happy-news bubble. [. . .] Show me a boss who flies off the handle and gets verbally abusive when someone brings him bad news, and I'll show you a staff that tip-toes around the boss and hides problems from him until there's a full-blown disaster. I've seen this many times.

[Newsweek's] Evan Thomas provides another glimpse into the Bush management "style":
The denial and the frustration finally collided aboard Air Force One on Friday. As the president's plane sat on the tarmac at New Orleans airport, a confrontation occurred that was described by one participant as "as blunt as you can get without the Secret Service getting involved." Governor Blanco was there, along with various congressmen and senators and Mayor Nagin (who took advantage of the opportunity to take a shower aboard the plane). One by one, the lawmakers listed their grievances as Bush listened. Rep. Bobby Jindal, whose district encompasses New Orleans, told of a sheriff who had called FEMA for assistance. According to Jindal, the sheriff was told to e-mail his request, "and the guy was sitting in a district underwater and with no electricity," Jindal said, incredulously. "How does that make any sense?" Jindal later told NEWSWEEK that "almost everybody" around the conference table had a similar story about how the federal response "just wasn't working." With each tale, "the president just shook his head, as if he couldn't believe what he was hearing," says Jindal, a conservative Republican and Bush appointee who lost a close race to Blanco. Repeatedly, the president turned to his aides and said, "Fix it."
"Fix it." Yes, that's useful. But I suspect if the aides could have fixed "it," they would have.

What are we looking at, here? A president whose staff is afraid to bring him problems to solve, and when he finally is confronted with a problem, his "solution" is to order other people to solve it.

What exactly do we need a president for, exactly? Ribbon-cutting ceremonies?
The joke, of course, is that before leaving for vacation, Bush said that he needed the time off so that he could continue to make "good, crisp decisions." It was not a good decision to cut a cake with John McCain or play guitar (makes me ashamed to be a flatpicker). It was not a good decision to "fly over" the Gulf coast on his way back from vacation and let someone take that stupid picture. He was certainly not crisp in his bumbling speech ("one of the worst speeches of his life") full of cold numbers and lacking even a fraction of Jed Bartlet's compassion.

What went wrong? Was it just that all of Bush's support team was in the hospital with kidney stones or on vacation, so that no one was there to act on the good, crisp decisions he made between the IV and V chord? Or was it that Bush is pretty much incapable of rising to the kind of occasion that fictional presidents--and the Democratic Commanders in Chief they are based on--tackle with grace and gusto?

When Bush was elected in 2000, I wanted a bumper sticker in the mold of those "My president is Charlton Heston" stickers that treasonous NRA members sported through the Clinton years, a sticker that would read, "My president is Jed Bartlet." Bartlet, after all, never blew it.

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