A quartet of stories from the New York Times this morning demonstrate the continued unraveling of the Bush administration's façade of competence, and how the US press is now more willing to cover, even give prominence to, information embarrassing to the administration and its members. The first is a piece by Eric Lipton on the Bush administration's futile search of a new FEMA director. As the White House and its apologists watched in horror during the Katrina disaster, bad press poured from the nation's media like water into the ninth ward. Formerly docile reporters were suddenly showing teeth, and the White House swung into action to rebuild the barriers of spin and manipulation that no one had imagined would ever fail. High on the agenda was to find someone with actual disaster management experience to take over FEMA.
Reaching out to the reality-based community for a political appointment was an unusual step for the administration, especially when there were so many cronies and underskilled political hacks lacking appropriately cushy jobs. But desperate times call for desperate measures. Unfortunately, as Lipton's article shows, none of the nationally-known disaster management experts the administration contacted wanted the job. The administraion's systematic disempowerment of federal regulatory agencies, its sandbagging of scientists and experts, its gutting of laws and regulations, its installation of political hacks in key offices to ensure that the Republicans' corporate pals get breaks wherever possible, and that no critical report or attempt at oversight emerge to distract agencies from this, their true mission, had become too well known. Actual experts have little desire to be a token egghead at FEMA, and can see that the administration, Chertoff at DHS, and the Republicans in Congress are not really serious about repairing FEMA. It's hardly surprising that, after six years of rampant political hack-work and cronyism, when the administration finally decided it needed a department head skilled at more than puckering and stooping, no highly regarded experts were willing to serve as the administration's beard at FEMA.
Two other NY Times stories show why regulatory or management experts might want to put some distance between themselves and the Bush administration's 'loyalty to the president and corporate interests above all else' campaign. Felicity Barringer updates readers on how the Interior Department under Gale Norton has successfully increased the number of Potemkin wetlands in the nation, counting as a 'wetland' anything that's wet, including water hazzards at golf courses or temporary ponds left over from construction excavation. Meanwhile, actual wetlands--shallow bodies of water, with plants such as reeds and water lillies, that are home to many species of amphibians and birds, and that perform important roles in the absorbtion and filtering of water runoff--have decreased by 523,500 acres since 1998. Over at NASA, meanwhile, a bit of better news: the agency has strengthened its free speech policies after complaints from several agency scientists that political appointees had attempted to quash speeches or reports critical of administration policies. If the White House thought that its cronies could head FEMA and Interior, because after all, disaster relief and resource management are hardly rocket science, it's good to see that at one of the agencies responsible for actual rocket science, some effort is being made to protect the jobs of those scientists who have not already quit or been driven out by Bush's political commissars.
Finally, Secretary of State Rice is visiting Britain--our staunch ally in the coalition of the willing. Rice was once the darling of the US press, which fawned over her after her appointment at State, notwithstanding her complicity in the administration's disasterous foreign policy (even leaving Iraq out of it, if you insist). It's always been more difficult for members of this administration to escape public protests and tough questioning by reporters in Europe, where they have yet to enshrine 'free speech zones,' carefully screened audiences, and sound-bite reporting to the extent that we have here in the US of A. On her latest trip, Condi has run into more than Europe's usual intolerance of the differently-adept. She has run afoul of the US media's penchant for pushing the dominant meme. A couple years ago the meme was how tough, visionary, and steadfast was the White House and its policies. Today, alas for Condi, it's how incompetent the administration is. In his account of Rice's visit to the hometown of British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's hometown of Blackburn, reporter Joel Brinkley picks out the telling details that communicate the media's theme-dejure, such as the hapless Secretaries waving enthusiastically to a "handful of people, many holding shopping bags, who had stopped to gawk."
For those of us who have been mad at this administration for a long time, and aghast at the media's ability to ignore or explain away anything critical of Bush, reading a description like Brinkley's is music to the ears. In it's confirmation of our long-held belief that this administration is perhaps the worst in modern history, it has the ring of authenticity that so much previous reporting has lacked. The way the tone of US political reporting has changed since Katrina has been dramatic. 'Finally,' I think to myself, 'the press gets it. But what they've got is not really a commitment to accurate reporting, but rather a different manifestation of the slavishness of the US press to whoever and whatever is popular at the moment. Once it was that Bush could do no wrong; now he can't do anything right. Sad that it is so, even when it happens to people who really deserve it.