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?"

I don't think we've yet grasped the magnitude of the damage that followed this cavalier attitude. There are now estimates that half of New Orleans residents will never return to their ruined metropolis. The city government is going to shrink to a fraction of its previous size. For all the photo ops and vows to rebuild, it now looks like Katrina has permanently wiped out half of a major American city, if population is a measure of a city's vitality.

Brownie should have plenty of time to work on his wardrobe now. Did the guy ever apologize? No, he went before a congressional committee and said it was other people's fault.

He belongs in the hall of fame for bureaucratic inaction.

Meanwhile, did I. Lewis use a courthouse appearance to speak to the public yesterday? No.

"I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, pleaded not guilty today in U.S. District Court to felony charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and presenting false information to a federal agent," reports the Los Angeles Times |,0,886778.story?coll=la-home-headlines.

Instead, Scooter had his lawyer Ted Wells say a few words:

"Mr. Libby has pleaded not guilty to each and every count in the indictment. In pleading not guilty, he has declared to the world that he is innocent. He has declared that he intends to fight the charges in the indictment, and he has declared he intends to clear his good name."

Wells then said Libby would not fight the case in the press. I hate when that happens.

Says the New York Times | "The day's events dampened hopes among some Republicans for a quick resolution to a case that has already cast a long shadow over the White House. Immediately after the arraignment, Mr. Libby's lawyers sought to quell any speculation about a possible plea deal to resolve the politically volatile case."

Lots of buzz about this WashPost piece | saying White House aides are debating whether Rove should stay on (number of named sources expressing this view: zero). And there will be even more over this poll | which has Bush down to 39 percent:

"For the first time in his presidency, a majority of Americans question the integrity of President Bush, and growing doubts about his leadership have left him with record negative ratings on the economy, Iraq and even the war on terrorism, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll."

One bright spot, on Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito Jr.: "Half of Americans say he should be confirmed by the Senate and fewer than a third view him as too conservative, the poll found."

Red State Rant | has a, well, rant on the Libby indictment:

"Which is worse? Stuffing secret documents down your pants or having a different recollection of events than Tim Russert? . . .

"Just as Caspar Weinberger's bogus indictment five days before the 1992 election was an attempt to criminalize political differences over the Reagan administration's anti-communist policies in Central America, it's reasonable to suggest the Libby indictment is a similar attempt to criminalize differences over Iraq."

Anonymous Liberal | has a rather different take:

"Libby's behavior throughout this investigation has bordered on the inexplicable. And he now appears set on going to trial against the best prosecutor in the country with what appears to be an incredibly weak defense. It certainly seems plausible that Libby is relying on the president's pardon power as a backstop. Bush, after all, is in his second term and would have very little to lose politically by granting such a pardon on his way out the door."

Liberal blogger John Scalzi | "I can't imagine that the Bush approval rating could possibly get any lower than it is at the moment, but then again, that's what I thought when it hit 39% a few weeks ago. Considering that there's probably 33% of Americans who would rather chew on jagged glass than to show disloyalty to a sitting Republican president, a 35% approval rating basically means that no one outside the ranks of the ideologically paralyzed right-wing approves of our president. No one. The rating couldn't possibly go lower. Could it?

"What do I think about the Bush's approval rating? Well, I think it's exactly what he deserves. He's a terrible president with an incompetent administration, and it's gratifying to see the large majority of the American people coming around to this fact. Would that they would have come around to this conclusion a year ago, when the vote was on.

"You'll note, however, that I did not say that I was happy that Bush has such a God-awful rating. I'm not. Having a weak and deeply unpopular president makes us vulnerable as a nation, particularly when we are engaged in a war."

On the Alito nomination, HuffPoster R.J. Eskow | rips the NYT over this piece |

"The New York Times profile of Samuel Alito reads more like a popstar profile from 'Teen Beat!' or one of the other teenage fanzines - 'win a dream date with Sam!' He's got 'common sense' and a 'straightforward style!' Learn about his 'surprising choice!' He's 'courageous,' but even his 'flourishes' are 'extremely practical.' Sure, he blew his biggest case (against the Mob) and he's the guy who brought us Michael Chertoff, but never mind: Writer Daniel Wakin sez 'I heart Alito - and you will too!' . . . Not quoted in this profile is Alito's Mom, who said in her now-famous quote, 'Of course he's against abortion.' Nor are there any ruminations on what personality characteristics might allow someone to rule in favor of strip-searching a 10-year-old girl when you only have a warrant for her father, or limiting Congress' right to control machine guns (not an 'activist judge,' eh?) Wakin wasn't curious about Alito's ruling that schools can't prohibit harrassive speech based on race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation, despite the opportunities for continued childhood misery that it created.

"There was no mention of the fact that Alito's consistently right-wing views - extreme and 'activist' - have served his career well under Presidents like Reagan and Bush. Is it 'common sense' to rule against Congress on machine guns, and against schools trying to control hate speech?"

Here's my problem with this kind of criticism. The Times has run a number of pieces on Alito's legal record and what kind of justice he might make. This was a feature on the person, the sort of story that relies heavily on friends and colleagues. To then go through a litany of what it didn't mention, when those issues are dealt with in other stories, seems really loaded.

Peggy Noonan | says Alito "appears to be a serious man with a nice mother from a good place (Trenton, N.J.). It is good to see nominees who come from America and who are not creatures of Washington. His record is now being aired; soon he will be questioned in public. Everyone seems to agree that both sides, right and left, are now forced by the media environment to respond within 24 hours to a nominee to the high court--'He's the end of the world as we know it!' 'He's a brilliant man and an incredibly wise choice!' Halos and devil's forks must be put in place quickly. But I'll wait and keep reading. I wonder if we all shouldn't. The men and women on the high court have way too much power and way too much impact on daily American life. When we can wait, when the nomination is legitimately debatable, why not wait to support and denounce when we have the information to do so?"

But what would cable put on?

In the New Republic, Andrew Siegel | says, yeah, Alito may be nice--too nice:

"Those familiar with Alito stressed that his even-keeled temperament, collegiality, and lawyerly writing style distinguished his professional demeanor from that of the volatile, sarcastic, and often hectoring Scalia. The nearly universal conclusion was that Alito was less of a Scalia clone than some of the other federal judges considered for the post, most notably the rumored runner-up, Judge J. Michael Luttig.

"The implication of this conclusion was that liberals should breathe a sigh of relief, since Alito is no Scalia 2.0. The reality, however, is much more complicated. While Scalia's bellicose tone and general lack of civility have long been fodder for his left-wing critics, they have also served to hold back his judicial agenda, both by alienating potential allies within the Court and by marking his ideas as extreme in the court of public opinion. But Alito, who marries Scalia's conservative jurisprudence with tact, politeness, and a deferential writing style, is infinitely more dangerous to liberals. In Alito, they may have met their worst nightmare."

Jack Shafer | says The Post bows and scrapes to Charles and Camilla, while Columbia Journalism Review | chides The Post for disclosing the CIA's secret Eastern European prison | for al-Qaeda captives without saying where it is (as now Financial Times has now done) at the request of U.S. officials:

"One Washington foreign policy analyst, Peter Kornbluh, told us, 'This is probably the most important newspaper capitulation since [the New York Times] yielded to JFK's call for them not to run the full story of planning for the Bay of Pigs. By withholding the country names, the Post is directly enabling the rendition, secret detention, and torture of prisoners at these locations to continue. That is a ghastly responsibility.' . . .

"What we do know is that the Post is trying to have it both ways: Getting credit for breaking the story, without breaking the specific details that might have caused it grief from the CIA."

On the other hand, no one would know about it without Dana Priest's story.

It's fine with me if Arianna | wants to rip Carville for being too soft on Cheney:

"Can somebody please, please, please shut Carville up -- especially about Plamegate. His takes on the scandal are utterly compromised by his marriage to Mary Matalin."

But isn't that an odd position to take for a woman who was once married to a GOP congressman? Did she not speak her mind because Michael Huffington was her husband? I doubt it.

The recent news about newspaper belt-tightening doesn't draw much sympathy from Jeff Jarvis |

"Every time we hear about another cutback in newspapers -- and there are plenty of them these days -- we automatically hear the notion that journalism jobs must be saved to save journalism. I'm afraid it's time to challenge that assumption.

"Saving journalism isn't about saving jobs or even newspapers. In fact, the goal shouldn't be just to save journalism but to grow it, expand it, explode it, taking advantage of all the amazing new means to gather and share news we have today.

"Start with the real goals, which are informing society, keeping power in check, improving people's lives, making connections (right?) and then ask what the best ways are to do that today. After that, you can ask what the role of journalists and newspapers should be.

"Maybe we need fewer people in newsrooms and need to take money to hire a lot more people outside newsrooms to gather more news."

Hey, citizen journalism is great, unless you're one of the citizens who loses his job.