Hiding Bodies Won't Hide the Truth

By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, September 8, 2005 9:46 AM

Cadavers have a way of raising questions.

When people see them, they wonder, how did they get dead?

When a lot of people see a lot of dead bodies, politicians begin thinking of damage control.

Echoing a Defense Department policy banning the photographing of flag-draped coffins of American troops, representatives from the much-maligned Federal Emergency Management Agency said on Tuesday that it didn't want journalists to accompany rescue boats as they went out to search for storm victims, because "the recovery of the victims is being treated with dignity and the utmost respect." An agency spokeswoman told Reuters, "We have requested that no photographs of the deceased be made by the media."

Whatever the objective, those pesky questions about accountability are not going away. And a full-scale political storm over the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina continued to rage around the White House this week, despite the best efforts of the president's supporters to deflect criticism by tagging it as partisan--even though many of the critics are themselves Republicans.

"There were two disasters last week: first, the natural disaster, and second, the man-made disaster, the disaster made by mistakes made by FEMA," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters this week.

And her Senate counterpart, Harry Reid (D-Nev.) raised the question, "How much time did the president spend dealing with this emerging crisis while he was on vacation?"

Both have demanded a wide-ranging investigation of the response to Katrina.

"While countless Americans are pulling together to lend a helping hand, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are pointing fingers in a shameless effort to tear us apart," Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said in a statement on Wednesday.

But Mehlman had no admonitions for the many Republicans who've urged accountability and demanded answers for the slow response to Katrina.

The president's defenders have now perfected their public relations talking points: The public doesn't blame Bush. Any journalist, pundit or politician who criticizes the president is out of touch with the mainstream. Anyone who has the audacity to demand accountability is just a big old partisan meannie.

Making the rounds on the morning news shows, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), a presumptive candidate for president in 2008, repeatedly made the point that "the buck stops at the federal government." In another breath, she insisted, "I'm not interested in pointing fingers; I'm interesting in getting answers."

Clinton is pushing legislation to remove FEMA from under the Department of Homeland Security. Whether this idea goes anywhere, is it not worth at least debating?

And if that's worth debating, why isn't it worth debating whether the administration has -- particularly in the wake of 9/11 -- treated FEMA as a critically important agency.

In one of the few compliments Bush gave the previous administration during the 2000 campaign, he praised President Clinton's FEMA director, James Lee Witt, as a "guy who has done a really good job of working with governors during times of crisis."

Yet after his election in 2000, Bush quickly replaced Witt with Joseph Allbaugh, his former campaign manager, and a man who had little experience in disaster relief. At a Senate subcommittee hearing on May 15, 2001, he called the agency "an oversized entitlement program" and warned that "expectations of when the federal government should be involved, and the degree of involvement, may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level."

If the person at the top doesn't demand answers and assign blame when necessary, how can he send the message to bureaucrats that they will be held responsible for their actions?

"Only 13 percent blame Bush?" blared a headline on the Drudge Report yesterday.

Other supporters focused on the 55 percent who said in a Washington Post-ABC News poll that Bush should get only some (33 percent) or none of the blame (22 percent) for the response to Katrina.

But as is often the case, it's not that simple.

Drudge refers to a new CNN-Gallup-USA Today poll. And sure enough, there is one question that asks, "Who do you think is most responsible for the problems in New Orleans after the hurricane?" Indeed, 13 percent answered Bush. (Another 18 percent answered "federal agencies" -- which the last time I checked, answer to Bush.)

But in the same poll, people were asked a separate question -- judge how the president did in responding to the hurricane. And 42 percent said "bad" or "terrible" compared to 35 percent who said "great" or "good."

The boosterism also ignores anything else in the polls that doesn't fit public relations talking points, including the fact that majorities of people believe (according to the Washington Post/ABC poll) that the Bush administration does not have a clear plan for dealing with the post-Katrina situation, and that majorities of people believe Katrina has exposed major problems with the federal government's emergency preparedness.

What the aforementioned polls demonstrate is that people are reasonable. Almost no one thinks Bush deserves all the blame for the post-Katrina fiasco. But they are clearly not comfortable that he did everything he could to minimize the damage to humanity and ease the suffering of the victims of the historic storm. And people are also concerned that he has not done enough to prepare the nation for the catastrophic.

Polls show that the public is already increasingly weary of the president's character, largely because of the dubious claims he made in the march to war in Iraq and probably because of his failure to hold anyone accountable for the mistake made in selling the war as well as fighting it. But they won't soon forget the images coming out of New Orleans and elsewhere on the Gulf Coast.

In responding to public will, there is risk, and possibly reward if he demonstrates leadership and character in coming months. The public has a large capacity to forgive leaders who come clean about their mistakes and make an effort to fix them. But the issue will not go away.

So FEMA can try to hide the bodies from the public's view. But the public will not forget.

Comments can be sent to Terry Neal at commentsforneal@washingtonpost.com.

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