Brownie is no longer doing a heckuva job. Or any job.
Talk about an inevitable sacrifice: It was just a matter of time before FEMA head Michael D. Brown resigned, as he did yesterday. He had come to personify the rule that once you become a joke in Washington, there is no rehab. He had became the subject of hundreds of punch lines amid the tragically unfunny spectacle of Katrina -- too many to recover from.
Last Thursday, the day before Brown was summarily posted back to Washington, Sen. Ken Salazar offered a lesson in the caricature Brown had become. Salazar, a Colorado Democrat who like many others had demanded that the Federal Emergency Management Agency chief be fired, was asked his assessment of Brown, a longtime resident of the senator's home state. After a few sentences about Brown's lack of experience in emergency management, Salazar shrugged and said simply, "Arabian horses."
This of course referred to Brown's stint as commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association. It became the functional shorthand for a background short of emergency management experience. More to the point, it became a punch line.
"Prior to heading FEMA, Brown spent the '90s as a commissioner -- this is true -- of the International Arabian Horse Association," Jon Stewart said on "The Daily Show" last week. "I guess he stands out because most Bush appointees are beholden to the Arabian people."
The equine satire went well beyond professional comics. "I'm not aware of any Arabian horses being killed in this storm," Kate Hale, a former Miami emergency management chief, told the New York Daily News last week.
And the rout was on.
"Any public figure short of the president doesn't want to become fodder for late-night television shows," says Ed Kutler, a Republican lobbyist. "When you make it past a certain point of satire, there is no return. And, unfortunately for Brown, he passed that point last week or earlier, whether deserved or not."
"This horse business" -- Andy Lester, a longtime friend of Brown's, said in an interview -- was only the start.
Brown's saga incorporated a series of perceived fumbles and unfortunate sound bites that made for a caricature.
Some of it was not his fault. When Bush, during his first visit to the Gulf Coast after Katrina, said, "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job," it embodied what many critics viewed as the administration's slow response to the disaster.
But Brown provided some ammunition himself. He was bludgeoned in a procession of TV interviews with the likes of Soledad O'Brien, Paula Zahn and, most glaringly, Ted Koppel, in which Brown said he had learned only that day of deteriorating conditions at the New Orleans Convention Center.
At which point Brown essentially disappeared from public view.
"I have no problem talking to you about my husband," Tamara Brown said when reached at her home last week. "But I need to talk to our press office first." She was, predictably, not heard from again, and Mike Brown's caricature was left to calcify in a flurry of resignation demands, accusations (in a Time magazine report that he exaggerated his disaster relief experience) and ridicule (Jay Leno: "Big news -- President Bush announced a plan to put a man on Mars. It's the head of FEMA").
"I'm worried for him personally," Lester said of his friend last week. He said Brown was not even the subject of criticism anymore. "It's not criticism, it's piling on."
Lester, who attended Georgetown Law School, added that the ordeal that has befallen Brown "is one of the reasons I don't live in Washington anymore."
The countdown to Brown's departure intensified Friday when Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff "reassigned" him back to Washington. White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Brown had not resigned and the president had not asked for his resignation. When asked by a reporter whether the president had full confidence in Brown, McClellan said, "We appreciate all those who are working round the clock."
But it should generally not be taken as a good sign when the head of FEMA is taken off one of the worst catastrophes in American history. To wit:
"Some good news today," Leno said Friday night. "The most important evacuation was made today in New Orleans. They got the head of FEMA, Mike Brown, out of there."
Conan O'Brien: "Michael Brown, the controversial head of FEMA, was relieved of his duties in New Orleans. . . . Yeah, he's been told to report to Washington immediately, which means he should get there in about a week."
Before leaving the Gulf Coast, Brown announced that he planned to "go home and walk my dog and hug my wife and maybe get a good Mexican meal and a stiff margarita."
This violated another cardinal rule of image rehab, says Marshall Wittmann, Sen. John McCain's former press secretary, now with the Democratic Leadership Council: "In the aftermath of a disaster, you don't refer to a party drink you want to indulge in."
In the spirit of piling on, Wittmann says that Brown "had clearly become a bur in Bush's saddle."