"George Bush doesn't care about black people."
-- Kanye West, rapper and producer
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has gamely tried to defend her boss against charges that the haphazard federal response to Hurricane Katrina's victims was due to the fact that most of them were black and poor. Rice is out of her depth on this one. She can say all she wants that it is not within George W. Bush to "have left people unattended on the basis of race," but her words won't rescue him from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's abysmal performance. Neither will photo ops with administration heavy hitters and storm victims.
The relief efforts speak for themselves. Most of the bodies in those floodwaters and most evacuees scattered around the country didn't hail from the upscale side of their communities. They were let down by government at all levels.
Mayors and governors will have to account for their failures. But there's also no way to get around the federal government's ineptitude. The two Michaels -- Chertoff and Brown -- are stark facts of life. So are the marooned, the dead and the squalor.
But there is a tomorrow, and with it comes a chance for the government to get it right. It can be done in the Gulf Coast. It sure as hell is being tried in Iraq. In the past two years, the Bush administration has directed billions of dollars to Iraq for reconstruction. Last year Congress appropriated enough money to provide Iraqis with 800,000 jobs, all directed toward rebuilding that nation.
Billions of U.S. tax dollars have been sent to Baghdad -- with few questions asked by Congress -- to build Iraqi schools, police stations, courts, electric power plants and water treatment facilities. As of March, Iraqi reconstruction employment had already exceeded 160,000 jobs, and more than 2,000 Iraqi reconstruction projects were underway, all courtesy of the American taxpayer.
And there's no mistaking what's going on. Army Maj. Gen. Daniel Long, director of the Project and Contracting Office in Iraq, stated it plainly in an April news release: "It has been our objective with the U.S. taxpayer monies to improve the infrastructure of Iraq, boost the Iraqi employment and leave behind a skilled and knowledgeable workforce, workers and managers, who will sustain the infrastructure for the new democratic nation of Iraq."
If Long had the good sense to figure out that "each dollar or Iraqi dinar spent in Iraq translates into new jobs for other Iraqis," as he said in the news release, surely the White House should be able to apply some of that same wisdom to Americans in the Gulf Coast. Can there be a better mission for the U.S. government in storm-ravaged Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama? People are there to do it. Where there is a skilled workforce, use it. Where people are unskilled, train them. Take them to the jobs that need filling.
Unfortunately, the Bush crew that is in place is wrong for the massive job that needs doing. They may be up to the task of handing out relief checks. Maybe. But they are no match for the reconstruction effort that lies ahead. Chertoff is a white-collar, headquarters type. FEMA's leadership is loaded with political hacks. Chertoff is not even good at bobbing and weaving with the Washington press and managing his talking points. New Orleans, Biloxi and the other disaster areas need more than that.
Bush should put someone on the ground who can marshal and oversee the deployment of all available federal resources, including the new relief money. That someone must also have the president's full backing, the authority to say yes or no, and the courage to send foot-dragging bureaucrats packing, as well as the guts to stand up to the hustlers already packed up and headed to the scene.
Moreover, the federal government's reconstruction and resettlement czar must not be afraid to be in the company of frustrated and angry black people. Let me repeat: must not be afraid to be in the company of frustrated and angry black people. That requirement alone eliminates most of Bush's political appointees.
If Bush is serious about changing the hurricane disaster zone into a place of hope and opportunity with materials to build and sustain a new infrastructure, he should look beyond his administration's weak bench and select someone with the management and political skills -- and the cultural sensitivity -- to work with the Gulf Coast's economic and social strata.
What better person than Marc Morial, the former two-term mayor of New Orleans and current president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League? My saying this may be the kiss of death, but I shall plow on.
Morial was one of New Orleans's best and most popular mayors. He helped build much of the city and left a cleaned-up police department in his wake. He knows state legislatures, having served in the Louisiana state senate for two terms. He practiced law in one of the region's top firms. He also knows Washington, having earned a law degree from Georgetown University.
On top of everything else, Morial runs America's oldest and largest community-based movement aimed at getting African Americans ready to enter the mainstream. Economic self-sufficiency through jobs, training, homeownership and entrepreneurship is what Morial and the Urban League are all about. Morial is the kind of leader who can work with a Republican governor, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, and a Democratic governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana. He also knows how to work both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill and he has good lines into America's corporate and nonprofit sectors.
A smart White House would ask the league's board to give Morial a leave of absence for a few years. It would equip him with a sharp Office of Management and Budget deputy who knows federal programs and a Joint Chiefs of Staff senior officer who knows which buttons to push at the Pentagon. It would back him up with an executive order and turn him loose on the job. That's what a smart White House that "cares about" closing the chasms, wiping away the angry tears, and rebuilding the Gulf Coast would do.