October 30, 2007
Maybe if I had been drinking heavily.
Maybe if I was suffering amnesia.
Maybe if I’d had a lobotomy.
Maybe, in other words, if my memory was impaired, I could accept the apologies for last week’s FEMA-brand bovine excreta at face value. Problem is, my memory is more or less intact, the routine ravages of age notwithstanding. So you’ll forgive me if my response to FEMA’s latest oops for its latest blunder is less than charitable.
For those who missed it, last week the Federal Emergency Management Agency called a news conference on 15 minutes’ notice to discuss its response to the wildfires in California. The short notice guaranteed that no reporters could get there in time, though they were given a phone number that allowed them to listen — not pose questions, mind you, but “listen” — to a briefing from Vice Adm. Harvey Johnson, FEMA’s deputy chief, after which he took questions.
But wait a minute, you say: If no reporters were there, who asked the questions? It turns out that FEMA staffers, posing as reporters, did the honors. That’s right, FEMA questioned FEMA. Or, to put it another way, a group of worker bees interviewed their boss.
It will not surprise you to hear that this format failed to produce tough questions. Instead, Johnson fielded slow rollers like, “Are you happy with FEMA’s response so far?” Thankfully, the session ended before anyone could ask him what sort of tree he would like to be in the next life.
When news broke of what FEMA had done, confessions and condemnations fell like rain. The agency apologized. A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security called the episode “offensive.” DHS chief Michael Chertoff called it one of the “dumbest” stunts he has seen in government. The White House called it an “error in judgment.”
I’d be happy to take the apologies and the you-a-culpas at face value and move on. Maybe I could do that if I were suffering some mental lapse that erased the accumulated experience of the last six years. Maybe I could do it if this was just an isolated instance of bad judgment. Maybe I could do it if this was not but the latest of many examples of the Bush administration manipulating news and information.
Maybe if a GOP shill and sometime porn entrepreneur had never been allowed to play reporter in the White House press room.
Maybe if the administration had never paid public funds to a supposed journalist for him to say good things about its No Child Left Behind law.
Maybe if the government had never put out promotional videos disguised as news, complete with Bush underlings pretending to be reporters.
Maybe if they were not in the habit of censoring science.
Maybe if Donald Rumsfeld had never proposed an office of disinformation.
Maybe if all 300 million of us were drinking heavily.
But there is not enough alcohol in existence and the administration’s aversion to the whole truth and nothing but is all too well documented.
There is more at stake here than the credibility of a president or a presidency. What is at stake is the ability of people to trust that those in positions of trust are worthy of trust. To play fast and loose with fact as the Bush administration has habitually done, is to put truth itself into play and risk rendering government’s word worthless. Not this government, but “government,” period.
And for what? For short-term political gain? The prize seems hardly worth the price. Yet they keep on doing it just the same. They refuse to learn from their mistakes.
Which only makes this show of contrition feel all the more cynical and disingenuous. They should save the apologies for people with short memories. Maybe some of us don’t see the pattern here.
But rest assured, some of us do.