WASHINGTON -- "I've got this down," Michael Chertoff boasted to aides last weekend as he staved off questions on television about handling the Katrina disaster. It turned out, however, that the secretary of Homeland Security did not begin to have it "down" when he subsequently was interrogated by Tim Russert on NBC's "Meet the Press." Chertoff's miserable performance on the air reflected a fiasco at all levels of government.
"There'll be plenty of time," Chertoff told Russert, to "do the after-action analysis." That bloodless dismissal made the human tragedy and physical mayhem on the Gulf Coast seem like a bureaucratic mistake. What Chertoff "got down" was the White House mantra, repeated endlessly, that the "after-action analysis" should not interfere with current recovery operations. It was similar to saying the Pearl Harbor attack should not have been investigated and nobody disciplined for failures until World War II was won.
Democrats have seized on the administration's performance in handling Katrina to bash George W. Bush, but Republicans are not much happier with him. The common complaint is that the president has let the lawyers take over. Chertoff, a former federal judge and assistant attorney general, is a quintessential lawyer who has surrounded himself at Homeland Security with more lawyers. Michael D. Brown, who as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is Chertoff's subordinate, is also a lawyer. Neither Chertoff nor Brown was experienced in politics or large-scale management before joining the Bush administration.
Chertoff's inexperience was shown when he said "I've got this down" into an open microphone, thinking he was safe because the cameras were off and not realizing his words were transmitted via satellite. He clearly saw himself as an advocate tailoring what he said to a lawyer's brief.
Political deafness mixed with lawyerly evasion was shown on "Meet the Press" when Chertoff claimed the breaking of the New Orleans levees "really caught everybody by surprise." Russert cited repeated forecasts of this disaster by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, but Chertoff insisted he did not say what he had just said.
Russert gave Chertoff a good going over, but that performance did not provoke Republican complaints (except for the usual grousing from White House aides). When Republican House members participated in a telephone conference call Sept. 1, the air was blue with complaints about the handling of Katrina. There was much hand-wringing about Republican prospects in the 2006 elections. Politics aside, however, the GOP lawmakers were unhappy with their administration's performance.