Dressed for Success, Primed for Failure

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 4, 2005; 10:44 AM

Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Brownie fretted about his attire while New Orleans drowned.

This would make a great sitcom if the results weren't so tragic.

What on earth was this guy doing in charge of federal emergency response?

I like witty e-mails as much as the next cubicle-dweller, but for Michael Brown to be making jokes while hundreds of thousands of people were in crisis--a crisis his agency did very little to alleviate--pushes the boundaries of bad taste. And why is he still on the payroll?

The correspondence that surfaced yesterday reads like an "SNL" skit. Brownie e-mailing his spokeswoman Sharon Worthy, days before Katrina crashed into Louisiana and Mississippi: "Tie or not for tonight? Button-down blue shirt?"

Days later, after Brownie was reckless enough to appear alongside Bush in a long-sleeved white shirt, came this urgent advice from Worthy: "Please roll up the sleeves of your shirt, all shirts. Even the president rolled his sleeves to just below the elbow. In this [crisis] and on TV you just need to look more hard-working."

Look more hard-working. Key word: look. Forget results. It's all about image.

The hurricane hits on Aug. 29. What was the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency worrying about? His appearance. "You look fabulous," Worthy told him.

"I got it at Nordstroms. . . . Are you proud of me? Can I quit now? Can I go home?" Brown replied in perhaps his only rapid response of the crisis. And an hour later: "If you'll look at my lovely FEMA attire, you'll really vomit. I am a fashion god."

He's right about the first part.

And how did Heck of a Job respond when his man in New Orleans wrote him Aug. 31 that "the situation is past critical . . . Hotels are kicking people out, thousands gathering in the street with no food or water. Hundreds still being rescued from homes. The dying patients at the DMAT tent being medivac"?

"Thanks for update," Brown wrote. "Anything specific I need to do or tweak?"

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