Week in Review: Katrina's Political Fallout

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Scott Simon reviews the week's news with senior news analyst Daniel Schorr. The chief topic is political fallout from Hurricane Katrina, including the fate of FEMA Director Michael Brown.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Security): We need to be prepared to deal effectively with the possibility of other hurricanes as well as other disasters, whether they be natural or manmade. Therefore, I have directed Mike Brown to return to administering FEMA nationally, and I have appointed Vice Admiral Thad Allen of the Coast Guard as the principal federal official overseeing the Hurricane Katrina response and recovery effort in the field.

SIMON: Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff speaking Friday from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Mike Brown will return to Washington, DC, under a wave of criticism. His replacement is the Coast Guard's third in command; Vice Admiral Thad Allen led the effort to secure the ports and rivers east of the Rocky Mountains after September 11th, 2001. His current assignment may be even more challenging as hundreds of thousands of people are dislocated by Katrina and await guidance and the US Army Corps of Engineers wrestles Lake Pontchartrain off the streets of New Orleans. Senior news analyst Dan Schorr joins us.

Hello, Dan.

DAN SCHORR reporting:

Hi, Scott.

SIMON: And is there any doubt that this is, whatever it might be called, a kind of walking of the plank for Mr. Brown?

SCHORR: Oh, it certainly is and very justly so. He's fallen on his face, and it looks as though the whole agency, the Homeland Security agency, that was set up after 9/11 to throw everything together into one pot and shake well didn't work. I mean, this is clearly a sign that they may have to let agencies like the Coast Guard go back to doing their work. Clearly, the Coast Guard's been chosen 'cause the Coast Guard has distinguished itself as one of the agencies of Homeland Security.

SIMON: Mr. Brown, of course, has borne the brunt of criticism of the federal government's effort this week, but there were also people who pointed fingers at the governor of Louisiana, at Mayor Nagin of New Orleans, while other people are saying, no, it's too early to begin the partisan debates. Is it?

SCHORR: Well, it's never too early for a partisan debate in Washington, and clearly, the Republicans would like to lay whatever blame they can on the Democratic officials in the state of Louisiana, and clearly you'll hear from the Democrats that there was a colossal failure here in responding to that flood.

SIMON: This conversation is now in a sense beginning to almost slide away, that story about recovery and finding people and rebuilding. Is this the worst or, in a sense, the best time to have this conversation, when the human consequences are so vivid.

SCHORR: It's not a very good time to have this conversation. There is a lot that needs to be done by a joint effort, and you're not going to get a joint effort if they begin pecking away at each other, and there's some signs that that is beginning. But America has become a very divided, very partisan country. The Congress tends to be very partisan, and even in the tragic case like this, you really can't keep them away from arguing with each other.

SIMON: Now Congress returned from the summer recess and immediately began to work on hurricane appropriations. Two so far have added up to over $62 billion.

SCHORR: That's right.

SIMON: With all the focus on Katrina and the aftermath, what happens to other items on the agenda?

SCHORR: Well, the signs are that Congress is having a look at this, and I think one of the things that will happen is that part of the present agenda will be put on hold for a while. They may not go ahead with abolishing estate taxes. They may not go ahead with big increases in other tax cuts. They are really looking at a situation where they can't afford to do all the things the president would like to do. I think Social Security reform is going to be put on hold as well.

This is now a country very short of money to do some desperately needed things, and I think we'll see evidence of that. It may well be that Medicaid will be extended, the welfare-to-work requirements may be changed, that students may be given more time to pay back loans. There will have to be an easing of financial pressures if we're to get through this.

SIMON: And given political realities in the news story that is playing out every day before our eyes, is there any way as you see it around an independent commission to investigate the response to Hurricane Katrina?

SCHORR: Well, I don't think the Democrats in Congress will accept what's called a bipartisan commission. It may be bicameral, but it's not going to be bipartisan 'cause the Democrats refuse to go along with that, and they do want an independent commission. Well, in the end if we've seen some of the other commissions, 9/11 all the way back perhaps to Pearl Harbor, it will end up as a purely independent commission, but it'll be a lot of fighting before they get there.

SIMON: Did this hurricane and flood as it now--as the floodwaters begin to recede, reveal divisions of poverty and race in this country?

SCHORR: Absolutely. I think that a Pew research poll which indicates that two-thirds, some 70 percent, of African-Americans believe that aid would have been more and faster in coming if this had been all whites, and that may very well be true. The fact of the matter is that the impoverished were not able to get out of harm's way as easily as those who were not impoverished, and so yes, I think this has underlined a very deep racial discord in our country still.

SIMON: William Rehnquist, chief justice of the United States, died last Saturday at the age of 80, something we would obviously talk more about if the events of the week were less compelling in so many other directions. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has said, of course, she'll retire as soon as her replacement's found. So there are two vacancies open on the court. The president has nominated Judge John Roberts for chief justice, and confirmation hearings begin on Monday. What do you see--any signals you discern for the other slot?

SCHORR: For some reason the president himself tried to send a signal that his attorney general may be the next one in line. At a Cabinet meeting, he said--well, he looked right at Gonzales and said, `You can see which way I'm looking,' and why he prefers to play these games with us I'm not exactly sure. But yes, there may be another one that may or may not be the attorney general.

SIMON: And the oil-for-food--the committee investigating corruption in the United Nations oil-for-food program released its findings this week. Former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker headed that commission and found significant evidence of mismanagement and corruption...

SCHORR: Yes.

SIMON: ...at the program. I believe Saddam Hussein was able to enrich his own pockets by $10.2 billion. Now the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, was blamed for mismanagement, did not charge him with corruption.

SCHORR: Well, he's been blamed for a certain amount of mismanagement and not having managed when he should have managed. No one said he should resign; he says he doesn't plan to resign. And I suspect that he won't resign. But I must say this is all very, very convenient for the new American ambassador there, John Bolton, who says that we need reforms and nothing underlines that more than Volcker's report.

SIMON: Thanks very much. Dan Schorr.

SCHORR: Mm-hmm.

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