Katrina Claims One More Victim For all the political capital President Bush lost in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it was far worse for Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco. The first-term Democrat announced this week she won't seek reelection. Plus: The growing scandal over fired U.S. attorneys.
NPR logo Katrina Claims One More Victim

Katrina Claims One More Victim

Louisiana's governor, like the city of New Orleans, never recovered from Katrina. hide caption

toggle caption

The firing of a U.S. attorney investigating a Democratic congressman during the Carter years sounds quite familiar. hide caption

toggle caption

Supporters have not given up hope on a Clark candidacy. hide caption

toggle caption

Seven years ago today, George W. Bush wraps up the Republican nomination for president. hide caption

toggle caption

For all the political capital President Bush lost following the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, it was far worse for Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco. The first-term Democrat has never recovered her footing since the tragedy, starting in late August 2005, that caused many deaths and massive destruction; much of the city has yet to bounce back.

Critics blamed Blanco for failing to order the mandatory evacuation of New Orleans in time, and for taking too long to send buses to rescue people from overwhelmed shelters. After the storm, she was faulted for being slow to get federal grants to homeowners trying to rebuild.

The polls reflected her problems. In a widely cited survey, Blanco was trailing her likely Republican opponent, Rep. Bobby Jindal, by more than 20 points; four years ago, she was elected by narrowly defeating Jindal, who was not yet a congressman. Then, a few weeks ago, word got out that former Sen. John Breaux (D), who voluntarily left office three years ago, was seriously considering a run for governor (only if Blanco did not run, of course). Breaux served 14 years in the House and 18 more years in the Senate before retiring after 2004.

On Tuesday, Blanco made it official: She took herself out of the running for re-election.

Ultimately, Blanco's decision is probably good news for the Democrats. For all her efforts to blame Bush for the city's plight — which seemed to be the sum total of her campaign strategy — an overwhelming number of voters said she bore much of the responsibility for the failed response to Katrina. Consequently, she remained widely unpopular and was seen as a long shot, at best, for another term. Other Democrats, including populist Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, were also getting in the race.

In a sign that Pelican State Republicans know that Breaux would be a formidable candidate, they've already begun to run commercials against him, deriding him as a Washington lobbyist (which he is) who is registered to vote in Maryland (which he is) and is thus no longer a state resident. But Breaux also has deep roots in Louisiana, and it may be a tough sell to convince voters that he is a carpetbagger.

But there's plenty of time to go before the field gets sorted out. The open gubernatorial election is Oct. 20.

On another topic, lots of comments have come in about the ongoing controversy over the Bush administration's decision to dismiss eight U.S. attorneys. Here's a small sample:

Audrey Price, Washington, D.C.: Here's what gets me. What if Bush simply said, "I want to get rid of these U.S. attorneys, plain and simple"? So what if it's about politics? Is it not his right? [Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick] Leahy wants to subpoena [Karl] Rove and Harriet Miers? Tell me that's not about politics?

Bart Hendrickson, Stevensville, Mich.: "At the pleasure of the president." Is it the president's pleasure that his staff is crooked? How long can a president hide behind that statement until it is obvious that he is crooked?

Connie Templeton, Seattle, Wash.: I am just appalled by the Justice Department's mass firings of the eight U.S. attorneys. How often has something like this happened in history?

To address Ms. Templeton's point: "Mass firings" of U.S. attorneys happen every time a new administration comes into power. Bill Clinton dismissed every single one in 1993, when he succeeded a Republican president, and George W. Bush did likewise in 2001, when he succeeded Clinton. The U.S. attorneys, as has been repeated ad nauseam, serve at the pleasure of the president.

That said, it is quite unusual to fire this many federal prosecutors in the middle of a presidential term. But what rankles many is not the president's right to do so. It's the shifting reasons given for their dismissals.

No, the firings weren't about politics, we were told, they were about job performance. Then we learned about political interference in New Mexico, Washington state, San Diego, and elsewhere. No, this didn't come from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, we were told; it was Harriet Miers' idea — or it was a plot hatched by Gonzales'now-departed chief of staff. Then we learned that may not be the case, either.

Perhaps, as reader Audrey Price noted above, if the Bush administration had come clean from the outset, there wouldn't be such a stink.

As for precedence, it — the misstatements, the half-truths — is eerily similar to what happened in 1978, during the Carter administration. Jimmy Carter had famously said, "All federal judges and prosecutors should be appointed strictly on the basis of merit, without any consideration of political aspects or influence." But then the president misled the public about his efforts to dismiss David Marston, a Republican holdover U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, who was investigating a Democratic congressman, Joshua Eilberg, for financial improprieties.

Did Carter have the right to get rid of Marston? Of course; that was never the issue. Was Carter, who promised never to lie to us, less than candid? You bet. First, he said he knew nothing about Attorney General Griffin Bell's decision to replace Marston. Then Carter conceded that Eilberg had called him to request that he handle the situation; that led to a phone call from the president to the attorney general. Throughout it all, Carter insisted politics played no role in the dismissal.

For his part, Bell was more forthcoming. According to a Time magazine article at the time, the attorney general said, "We have two parties in this country. The In party right now happens to be the Democrats. There are a lot of complaints about Mr. Marston. They say we ought to have a Democrat as U.S. attorney in Philadelphia."

Sometimes, it pays to be honest.

And here's a follow-up question:

Q: Isn't this the kind of scandal one would expect when a president names a crony to be his attorney general? — Chris Gallagher, Elizabeth, N.J.

A: Without addressing whether scandal is the logical result of naming a "crony," I'll note that it is not unusual to see a president name someone close as his attorney general. Harry Truman named his campaign manager to the post. So did Warren Harding — and Richard Nixon. Jack Kennedy's attorney general was not only his campaign manager, but his brother. FDR's first attorney general had served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Eisenhower's first had been chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Further, as I said in an All Things Considered commentary not long ago, "Before John Ashcroft, it was unusual for an individual attorney general to become a campaign issue. But not long after Lyndon Johnson picked Ramsey Clark in 1967, conservatives began complaining about what they saw as Clark's permissiveness when it came to issues like law and order and the treatment of criminals. At the 1968 Republican National Convention, Richard Nixon said, 'If we're going to restore order and respect for law in this country, there is one place we are going to begin. We are going to have a new attorney general in the United States of America.' The line elicited prolonged applause. So what does Nixon do? He names John Mitchell as his attorney general — who later goes to prison for crimes involving the Watergate cover-up. Mitchell's successor, Richard Kleindienst, later pleads guilty for lying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. So much for law and order."

The bet in Washington is that Gonzales doesn't survive this.

Q: I was listening to your segment on Talk of the Nation, and a question came in asking why Ann Coulter is still allowed to express her opinions (following her reference to having called John Edwards a "faggot"), and there was no word of dissent from anyone on the show. Only if you think being a gay man is a bad thing could you interpret her words as being a slur. I also noticed that when Bill Maher said this about Vice President Cheney, who was in Afghanistan when a bomb attack happened nearby – "I'm just saying if he did die, other people, more people, would live" — no one on NPR mentioned it. This shows an incredible and profound bias. — Erik S., Mound, Minn.

A: The argument that "faggot" is just another word for "gay man" is like saying the "N word" is interchangeable with "African-American." It's not. It was said deliberately, to get a rise out of her audience, and it was despicable.

Having said that, the Maher quote about Cheney — assuming it is accurate — is equally reprehensible.

WES IS MORE: A lot of e-mails came in response to my item in last week's column about whether Wesley Clark might make another run for the Democratic presidential nomination (I was guessing no). Ellen Goldstein of Washington, D.C., was not happy: "Your title as 'Political Junkie' is misplaced. Not only has the mainstream media neglected General Clark, but you are doing the same. I suggest that you take a look at securingamerica.com or dailykos, to name just two Web sites, to learn about Clark's activities but to also learn about his following." Linda Tinjum of Bismarck, N.D., writes, "You may know something I don't know, but I doubt it. The only person who knows for sure if Clark is going to run or not is Clark, and if he does, he'll do it in his own way, in his own time, and on his own terms."

Linda adds, "As for your comment, 'At least in 2004 he had some Clinton supporters who admired him from Arkansas and heading up NATO,' well, the number of Democrats who know and admire Clark in 2007 as compared to 2003/2004 is enormous. And a lot of Clark supporters like myself aren't all that sad to see at least some of those 'Clinton people' gone. And, yes, the media doesn't seem to care about anyone if their name isn't Clinton or Obama, but whether or not that will last is another question. There are any number of so-called 'experts' in the media who even admit that they're not sure if the voters are happy with their choices. And who and what the American voter will care about come Labor Day, I believe, is yet to be determined."

And then there is this note from Sam Appleby of Boulder, Colo., a Clark supporter: "I was told that Clark is indeed planning to run. He plans to announce around Memorial Day, either a 'pre-announcement announcement' (for an exploratory committee) or an official declaration of candidacy. As you know, Clark played the same waiting game in 2004, and was too late. He promises to do things completely different this year."

The reference to 2004 is also on the mind of Justin Cass a student at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.: "I remember the excitement around Wesley Clark's late candidacy in 2004. I always felt that his defeat was because of his decision to avoid Iowa. Do you think a late-starting candidate this year, like Newt Gingrich or Chuck Hagel — or Clark — could surprise primary voters and go on to the nomination in '08?"

The short answer is that I don't. With so many states (25? 30?) holding primaries or caucuses by Feb. 5 of next year, I can't see how a candidate who is not already out there raising a gazillion dollars a week is going to be a factor. But, as I like to say, who knows?

WE'RE ON THE AIR: This arrived in the mailbox the other day from Noemi Levine of Berkeley, Calif., who — believe it or not — was not paid for this endorsement: "Any chance of your getting your own show on NPR? Or at least a daily spot on TOTN or ATC [All Things Considered]? I ask not in dread, but in hope." I think Noemi may be on to something (besides hallucinogens). She may very well have started a national movement. Until then, you can still catch my "Political Junkie" segment every Wednesday at 2:40 p.m. Eastern time on Talk of the Nation, NPR's call-in show. Check local listings to see if your NPR station carries TOTN. If it doesn't, maybe U.S. Attorney David Iglesias can investigate. (Oh, wait, he was dismissed, wasn't he?) Special guest in this week's show: Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN), making the case for a Fred Thompson presidential candidacy.

As for our weekly podcast, "It's All Politics," Ron Elving, my co-host, is back from a week's hiatus. Last week's special guest, NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea, has received many e-mails regarding his appearance on the show and has now joined the Witness Protection Program.

And if you are having trouble listening to TOTN and/or the podcast, then you're in the same boat as Mark Rodeffer of Washington, D.C., who writes: "I have never downloaded a podcast (and do not own an iPod or similar device) and miss your weekly appearances on Talk of the Nation now that WAMU (in Washington, D.C.) has replaced it with another show. How can I listen?"

Simple: Visit the NPR home page at NPR.org. For TOTN, go to the top of the screen. Open the window that reads "programs and schedules," click on Talk of the Nation, and the computer will instruct you what to do. For the podcast, on the left side of the screen is a link for NPR podcasts. Click on that, go to the "It's All Politics" page, and you will receive instructions on how to listen.

Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state.

This Day in Campaign History: Texas Gov. George W. Bush clinches the Republican presidential nomination with his victory over his principal challenger, Arizona Sen. John McCain, in the Illinois primary (March 21, 2000).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org.