Then and Now: The Difference is W

Just discovered a piece from 10 years ago in “Washington Monthly” called The FEMA Phoenix. Amazing parallels as it mentions the bumbling, ineffective response to a devastating hurricane (in that case, Andrew) as compared to the lightning-fast, universally-praised response to Oklahoma City and also flooding in Iowa.

The difference, of course, was directors — and the presidents who appointed them. George H.W. Bush chose “Wallace Stickney, head of New Hampshire’s Department of Transportation, to lead FEMA. Stickney’s only apparent qualification for the post was that he was a close friend and former next door neighbor of Bush Chief of Staff John Sununu.” (Shades of Michael Brown, who became FEMA’s chief counsel, and then director, on the basis of being somebody’s college roommate.) Clinton, of course, chose James Lee Witt, who was the first FEMA director who actually had emergency management experience (a truly depressing thought.)

Many people have heard this story by now, of course. But here’s the part that blows me away: George W. Bush specifically complimented Witt in his first presidential debate.

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. [qtd. in Miracle Worker: Bush longs for James Lee Witt, the Clinton man he should have kept, by Bruce Reed]

Imagine the excellence required to inspire a presidential candidate to praise his opponent’s administration. Then ask yourself why the “CEO President” felt the need “to switch horses midstream.”

And seriously, read the “Washington Monthly” article. Everything old is new again.

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