WASHINGTON — Former Defense Secretary and Sen. William Cohen is credited with the quip, "Government is the enemy until you need a friend." In the wake of Katrina, that may have to be amended, "and then your friend may turn out to be dysfunctional."
We are learning the hard way about the costs of stinting on infrastructure to pay for tax cuts and the war in Iraq. And we are learning the hard way about the cost of entrusting emergency response to the political cronies and contributors who people this administration.
This despite many warnings, notably from The New Orleans Times-Picayune three years ago that the levees and the flood walls were fragile.
Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has been spending a lot of time on television explaining to aroused interlocutors why he was about the last to know of the thousands of citizens languishing in the convention center.
In a job that calls for a high degree of professionalism, Mr. Brown's previous experience was in overseeing horse shows. He got the FEMA job on the recommendation of his old college chum Joe Allbaugh. Mr. Allbaugh's expertise was as the president's national campaign manager, and he left FEMA to create a lobbying firm. [Editor's note: The original text mistakenly used "Joseph" as Mr. Allbaugh's first name.]
So what happens when decision- making in a dire emergency is left to political amateurs? What happens, first of all, is an argument about division of authority while people are dying. Meanwhile, as the Chicago Tribune reported, the USS Bataan, a well-equipped support ship with water, medicine, and operating rooms, lay for several days anchored off the Gulf Coast awaiting orders.
What happens is that Wal-Mart tried to deliver three truckloads of water to Jefferson Parish and was turned away by FEMA. On NBC television, Aaron Broussard, the president of the parish, dissolved in sobs as he accused the federal government of the "worst abandonment of Americans."
Newsweek described a "strange paralysis" as Bush officials tried to define who was responsible for what.
This has become a crisis of confidence not only in agencies and officials but in the whole concept of national government.
• Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.