Blame Games

In Defense of Finger-Pointing

By Michael Grunwald
Sunday, February 19, 2006

A fter Hurricane Katrina paralyzed his administration, President Bush vowed not to "play the blame game." And when White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend announced the preliminary results of her post-Katrina investigation last Monday, she reiterated that "we cannot attempt to rewrite history by pointing fingers or laying blame."

"Finger-pointing," like "partisanship" or "influence-peddling," is one of those ubiquitous Washington pastimes that is done only by other people. They play "the blame game" in order to "score political points," but we know, as a House committee noted in the 520-page Katrina report it released Wednesday, that "obtaining a full accounting and identifying lessons learned does not require finger pointing." The report opened with Henry Ford's famous anti-blame-game admonition: "Don't find a fault. Find a remedy."

But last week's post-Katrina retrospectives--Townsend's speech, the blistering House report and dramatic Senate hearings--included a fresh deluge of finger-pointing. Ousted Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown--who had blamed state and local officials in earlier testimony--pointed his finger at Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and the White House. Chertoff and his aides pointed fingers at Brown. The House report pointed fingers at just about everyone, including Brown, Chertoff, Bush, even the Red Cross.

The result of all this deplorable finger-pointing is that America knows a lot more about what went wrong during Katrina. And what's so deplorable about that? Sometimes, "the blame game" is just accountability with bad press; one man's finger-pointer is another man's whistleblower. After a fiasco like Katrina, there's not much difference between fault-finding and fact-finding; Teddy Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr. and other great finger-pointers have understood that things don't usually "go wrong." They're done wrong, and there's nothing wrong with identifying the wrongdoers.

If anything, Katrina has demonstrated that "obtaining a full accounting and identifying lessons learned" may indeed "require finger-pointing." The early scapegoating of Brown produced a series of revelations about his credentials, as well as his nonchalant e-mails while New Orleans drowned. Brown fought back by trashing Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, exposing some state and local miscues. The circular firing squad helped persuade the Republican-controlled House and Senate to conduct aggressive Katrina investigations, among the most serious congressional oversight so far during the Bush administration. It also persuaded President Bush to get rid of Brown, which then freed him to speak out about the DHS dysfunction that helped cripple FEMA, which in turn spurred DHS officials to highlight Brown's role in that dysfunction.

There's no denying that finger-pointing can be partisan and self-serving. At first, Democrats scapegoated Brown as a symbol of the administration's ineptitude, while Republicans rushed to his defense. Since his ouster, many Democrats have defended him as an administration fall guy, while many Republicans have portrayed him as the single source of the administration's problems. But as both sides have dredged up evidence, some of the fog around Katrina has begun to clear. The blame game produces heat, but also light.

Brown has produced mounds of documents to show that his DHS superiors were gutting FEMA long before Katrina. But DHS officials have shown that Brown stubbornly refused to follow the official chain of command. Last week's sniping revealed that during Katrina, Brown sent e-mails to DHS leaders warning that the situation was dire, but never called Chertoff directly to sound the alarm. In fact, Brown testified that he rarely bothered to tell Chertoff about anything; he simply talked to the White House. All this bureaucratic infighting clearly hampered the federal government's disaster response, but it has fueled some world-class finger-pointing.

The White House--after hanging Brown out to dry--has publicly obeyed the president's directive to avoid the blame game. Townsend's speech last week was so nonjudgmental it was almost meaningless: Search and rescue teams need a "more integrated structure," military forces need "better integration," medical teams need "a better, more integrated structure." Days after Brown's testimony, she took only one strong position, denouncing finger-pointers who "become bitter and lash out trying to find someone else, anyone else, to blame." She was particularly dismissive of fingers pointed in one particular direction: "I reject outright any suggestion that President Bush was anything less than fully involved."

The new House report concluded that President Bush was quite a bit less than fully involved, a rare rebuke from the GOP Congress. But sometimes, finger-pointing is just oversight with bad press. And when Washington types make sweeping proclamations about the blame game, it's a pretty good bet they're nervous about getting blamed.

Michael Grunwald is a reporter on The Post's National staff.

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