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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Joining us now to talk about, among other things, the reassignment of FEMA Chief Michael Brown and other matters related to Hurricane Katrina and the flood that followed it are our regular guest political observers, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and The Brookings Institution.

Welcome back, E.J.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (The Washington Post; The Brookings Institution): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (The New York Times): Hello.

SIEGEL: It's the first we've heard from the two of you since the storm struck. And in terms of our politics, what do you think the impact has been and how permanent do you think it'll be? David.

Mr. BROOKS: I guess to me the biggest impact long-term is going to be the fact that this is--was the most anticipated natural disaster in American history. We had agencies, we had officials, we had hundreds of conferences, dozens of people, hundreds of people all preparing for this event. And nonetheless, it was a government failure on every single level. And so I think the long-term failure will be to make people doubt their institutions, and that's going to have a corrosive and cynical effect on the politics, both left and right.

And then we'll face the additional challenge of spending probably a hundred billion dollars trying to rebuild this city, and if it sinks into the same sort of morass of bifurcated power, separated power, no accountability, then it'll just be not only the natural disaster we've seen but a long-term political disaster that'll really change the culture and make people really doubt whether we can get anything effectively accomplished.

SIEGEL: E.J., do you think that this event could be that influential on our politics in the coming years?

Mr. DIONNE: Yes, but not in the way that David described. I think what we've seen is an administration that consistently attacked, downgraded government, put political hacks into FEMA because they didn't take its role seriously. And guess what? When we needed to depend upon government, government wasn't there. This isn't going to lead people to become anti-government libertarians. It's going to remind people, as former Republican senator and Clinton Defense Secretary Bill Cohen said, `The government is the enemy until you need a friend.' But that friend has to be able to do the job right, and clearly this is a colossal failure on the part of the Bush administration. Yes, there's local failure and it was very striking that the White House, on the one hand has been saying, `Oh, let's not play a blame game.' But The New York Times, David's newspaper, reported very clearly that the administration wanted to shift blame--had a strategy to shift blame down onto the officials of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana. Well, that's fine. They have some accountability, too, but I think it's going to remind us that we need a government that works and that's effective.

SIEGEL: Well, you both think it has diminished confidence in the institutions that were supposed to respond to Katrina. David, you say it leads us to doubt them. Does it lead us as a people to fortify them and to say that as Americans felt differently at the outset of the Great Depression, we need a stronger government in some areas?

Mr. BROOKS: Right, no, it really could. I mean, I don't want to predict which way it was going to go, but I do think this institutional failure, which has been a massive failure, follows a whole series of institutional failures--the corporate scandals, the failures of competence in Iraq, the failure, you know, steroids in baseball--just a whole series of institutions which have failed us. Even the media. So what you have and what it reminds me a bit of is the 1970s, where a whole series of things went badly and people had a vague sense that they wanted something very different. It could lead, as E.J.'s suggestion, to a progressive revival. You know, let's have some more government. It could lead, it seems to me, in a libertarian way. If people lose faith it could lead away from the sort of values-oriented politics we've had toward a confidence-oriented politics. And so I don't know which way it's going to go but I do think this is a giant cultural and political event.

SIEGEL: E.J., I want to hear you on the subject of competence because it seems that Americans have had their sense of national competence very badly shaken recently in the sense that we couldn't handle a well-anticipated disaster. It seems to somehow go to the core of what we think in the worst of times is a great virtue of the United States.

Mr. DIONNE: Right, the can-do nation became the can't-do nation, I guess. Paul Krugman wrote that. And I think it's really hurting us overseas. I've talked to a number of people over the last several days--Americans who've been outside the country and people who live outside the country--who have said that the coverage of us has been terrible. And we are usually good at these things. If the tsunami was a great moment for America 'cause we came to the aid of other people--and that was the right thing to do--in this case, we couldn't protect our own people.

But let's be very clear here. We are not talking about government in the abstract failing. We are talking about a very particular government failing, the one we have right now. And I think it's incomprehensible that FEMA, at a time when we are so focused on dangers from terrorism, has been allowed to fall into the state that it's in. And finally today, you did have an accountability moment when Michael Brown was relieved of his duties as regards to this hurricane--the FEMA director--which may or not be a prelude to his being relieved of his duties altogether.

SIEGEL: President Bush last week when he set out for the region, began the day by saying that the results were unacceptable and, within a couple of hours, was turning to the now reassigned head of FEMA and saying `Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job.' Can we infer from this that the president just really wasn't very well tuned in to what was going on or not going on with this hurricane?

Mr. BROOKS: One hears within the White House he was furious at the time. I think there were two things at war here. First of all, he always has an instinct to defend his people and never admit mistakes. And, Lord knows, he never fires anybody. So there's that instinct to be loyal to the people who work for him.

And the second time, there clearly was this conflict within the White House of what they wanted to do, what they felt they could do. And I think the biggest difference between this and 9/11--9/11 they responded in an instinctual way, in a way that was very honest and very bold. This time within the White House they responded in a conflicted, bureaucratic, cold, impassive way where they had a whole series of options in front of them and they had these long, complicated debates--`Oh, we can do that but we can't do that. That may cause us political problems. That may cause us jurisdictional problems.' Instead of thinking like human beings, they thought like bureaucrats.

SIEGEL: No Gordian knot approach here.

Mr. BROOKS: Right, there was no leader to cut through it and Bush certainly didn't do it, and that was one of his key failures.

Mr. DIONNE: Most bureaucrats think a lot more clearly than these guys did. I think that after 9/11 we had a foreign enemy that we could unite against. The president's very good at confronting and describing foreign enemies. In this case, I think it was clear that he did not focus on this nearly early enough. When we knew--as David said--this was well-predicted. Why our government didn't sort of have meetings early on and say `We know this thing is coming. We know it may be very severe'--and you heard that on all the reports in the media for days before. And the media did a good job on this. Why didn't the government respond? So I think it's pretty clear that it took the president way, way too long to focus on this and that's why he was able to praise his FEMA director and call him Brownie.

SIEGEL: Now The Washington Post reports today that really at the top of FEMA there weren't career bureaucrats. They've been retiring--and not an atypical situation in the federal government, the loss of institutional experience. A lot of people whose background was in campaign advance work were taking their places at the top of the agency.

Mr. BROOKS: Well, there again, there are two issues here. There's the personnel issues. But if you go to Louisiana--and I don't mean to shift the blame, but this is important--if you go to Louisiana, there was a city agency specifically charged with anticipating this, a state agency, the Southeast Louisiana Task Force, the Hurricane Task Force. There were hundreds of agencies designed specifically for this and they failed just as badly. And that's why I think it's a systemic problem--aside from the personnel problem, which I grant--but a systemic problem that is something we're going to have to think about a lot more than just getting rid of Michael Brown or un-electing President Bush.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, E.J. Dionne, thanks to both of you for coming back.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Georgetown University.

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