2007/03/03

Two related items on PR vs substance

Dan Froomkin's White House Watch column in the WaPo today has two items of interest because they're both quite revealing as to how the Bush Administration views its constituents. When the President tours New Orleans, he likes to have his staff scout his route beforehand to find residents who are willing to be photographed receiving flags from the President. They then get to display their patriotism for the news cameras as the President walks on by. Bush made a cheery, peppy statement that gave the impression he's really trying to make a difference there: "I've come back again because I'm inspired every time I come here to see progress and the spirit alive. People here said, we refuse to be held down by the storm, we will overcome it."

Problem is, of course, that the rebuilding of New Orleans is an extremely slow, indifferent, lackadaisackal project that's stultified by excessive bureaucracy and that has made extemely unsatisfactory progress. The tone for the rebuilding project was set in the first few days after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast:

"The report [600+ pages, released February 2006] portrays [Michael] Chertoff, who took the helm of the [Homeland Security] department six months before the storm, as detached from events. It contends he switched on the government's emergency response systems 'late, ineffectively or not at all,' delaying the flow of federal troops and materiel by as much as three days."

Chertoff, of course, is STILL in charge of the rebuilding effort.

Who's in charge of the overall project, who had the ability to appoint effective administrators, who has the ability to fire the slackers and get good people in, who could make the project go faster, who could see to it that the $110 billion allocated for rebuilding by Congress was quickly and efficiently spent? The very same President!

Bush's quote from his latest tour is also very interesting: " 'One of the things I've heard loud and clear is that there's continued frustration with the slowness of federal response at times,' Bush said on his first trip here in six months. 'It's important for me to hear that.' " No sugggestion that perhaps, as President, he could personally maybe get governemtn bureaucrats moving on the case, that perhaps as Commander-in-Chief, he could maybe perhaps dump obviously inefficient administrators and appoint people who were a bit more energetic? It may be important for him to "hear" complaints, but it seems that actually doing anything about those same complaints is to ask for more than he's willing to deliver.

A similar story applies to the planned Presidential Library at Southern Methodist University. Great plans for a marvelous building are being made, but a stultifying order put out in 2001 severely limits what the library may make public. Steven Hensen of the Society of American Archivists says that the order restricts so much material from getting to the public that it could make the library "an empty shell of what such a library should be."

In both cases, the emphasis is on PR, on spin, on good pictures for news photographers. Actual usefulness, actually accomplishing something, actually making a real difference, gets shortchanged.

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