During the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln reached a point of utter frustration with the Union Army of the Potomac’s Commanding General George B. McClellan. General McClellan was, it seemed to Lincoln, unwilling or incapable of utilizing the sizable number of forces at his disposal. Lincoln suggested that if the General “did not propose to use the army, he himself would like to borrow it for a time.” (Bruce Catton, This Hallowed Ground, 1956). Following George W. Bush’s spectacularly inept use (misuse?) of government resources before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina, many Gulf Coast residents now feel as Lincoln did in 1862.
Bush’s failure to use the government to aid those devastated by the hurricane’s impact is consistent with the conservative Republican philosophy that government is for scaling back, rather than for proactively helping and protecting people. The New York Times focused on this view and noted, “Only a president with no expectation that the federal government should step up after a crisis could have stripped the Federal Emergency Management Agency bare . . . Only a president who does not expect the government to help provide decent housing for the truly needy in normal times could leave seven of the top jobs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development vacant . . .” (25 September 2005).
In 2001, then FEMA Director Joseph Allbaugh echoed the Bush philosophy in Congressional budget testimony. He noted President Bush’s February 2001 comment that “Our new governing vision says government should be active, but limited; engaged but not overbearing.” Then, Allbaugh, speaking of FEMA’s role, interpreted Bush’s sentiment of how to balance government involvement and non-involvement as “moving away from the expectation that the Federal Government is the option of first resort to the option of last resort.” (Fema.gov 16 May 2001). This hands-off doctrine, compounded by negligence and incompetence, contributed much to the Katrina disaster. For President Bush, his failure to act appropriately should be considered as grounds for impeachment. Now, some might think that it’s a bit extreme to bring presidential impeachment into the discussion about the failures surrounding the hurricane response. I don’t believe so. Granting the fact that impeachment is a momentous step, and that we usually think about impeachment in terms of acts of commission, not omission, a President’s not acting to “faithfully execute the office of President of the United States” might indeed be grounds for impeachment.
In 1788, during the debate over the Constitution’s ratification, Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist Essay #70, “Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government.” It is true that Hamilton argued one side of a long-lived and complex debate about the government’s role and the President’s power in the American system. Yet we’d do well to remember that the idea of the President as active, leading, and doing things, has long been seen as important to American governance. Lincoln felt that the oath of office itself permits, indeed requires, the President to act. He wrote, “I cared immensely for the use that could be made of the substance” of the power encapsulated in the oath. (Lincoln to Albert G. Hodges, 1864).
I don’t think that we can claim that Lincoln’s views are time bound, or only relate to his Civil War presidency. He did, in fact, invite the Congress to impeach him for his Civil War actions, which some saw as dictatorial. True, these were specific presidential actions. Yet, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy suggested to his brother Robert, that if he, JFK, did not act to remove the offensive missiles in Cuba, that if he did nothing, he should be impeached. (Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days, 1967)
One might ask whether President Bush’s failure to faithfully “execute the office of the President of the United States” fits the Constitutional requirement that a President be impeached for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” When we consider that many Republican members of Congress believed that President Clinton’s adulterous behavior (particularly his lies to the nation about his personal behavior) were grounds for impeachment and removal from office, it seems reasonable to argue that President Bush’s inaction while directing a “government hesitancy and a ‘not-my-job’ attitude that likely cost many lives” (Philadelphia Inquirer, 11 September 2005) is truly substantial justification for his impeachment. Impeachment is analogous to an indictment. Following impeachment by the House of Representatives, a President then stands trial in the Senate. Clinton was impeached, but not convicted by the Senate. So, if we want answers, impeachment, followed by a Senate trial, is certainly preferable to yet another “Presidential Commission”, which is announced with much hoopla, holds endless hearings, files recommendations, and is quickly forgotten. The President is the responsible officer of the government; as Harry Truman said, and said it best, “The buck stops here, at my desk.”
On 13 September, Bush took responsibility for the administration’s Katrina failures. But it was far from a Trumanesque moment. He seemed to say that he was sort of responsible, “to the extent that the federal government didn’t fully do its job right.” As I watched the speech, I thought that Bush’s body language betrayed his true feelings. While he spoke, he twisted, he turned, he hunched down, his face contorted into a mask of unease. It seemed to me that he did not want to be there, and that his apologetic statement was not genuine. So much for Harry Truman’s forthrightness. Bush made another speech to the nation on 15 September. He was more contrite, but the speech was mostly noteworthy for its high concept media presentation. One Bush aide noted, “It’s heated up, it’s going to print loud.” (Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 17 September 2005) And it was way too late. On the Senate floor, on 8 September, Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu rejected President Bush’s claim of “I don’t think that anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.” “Everybody,” she responded, “anticipated the breach of the levee, Mr. President, including computer simulations in which this administration participated.” (The New York Times, 9 September 2005).
Bush’s speech does not obviate the President and his administration from responsibility for the deaths and suffering that resulted from their neglect. If he had acted with dispatch, the President wouldn’t have to apologize now for his inaction. Many deaths would have been averted. Consequently, we should now call President Bush to account for his appalling inability to respond to Hurricane Katrina. Maureen Dowd wrote in The New York Times (3 September 2005) that before the hurricane, the administration cut requests from Jefferson Parish and the Army Corps of Engineers for levee construction, and for hurricane and flood programs for New Orleans. This was all part of the Bush administration’s philosophy of starving the government “beast.” It is true that state and city officials in Louisiana and New Orleans must share blame along with Congress, for their own poor preparation and slow response to the disaster. The concrete floodwalls along the New Orleans levees “were built in a way that by the Army Corps of Engineers’ own standards left them potentially unstable in a flood.” (The New York Times, 21 September 2005).
While there is considerable blame to spread around, the President sets the tone. His view of government’s role permeates the lower levels of government, and sets the stage for those who govern to act, or to hold back in a crisis. As Katrina neared and subsequently struck, and the magnitude of the disaster grew clear, the President was on his ranch, vacationing, oblivious to the growing crisis. Paula Zahn reported on CNN on 15 September, that as Katrina approached, lower level FEMA officials knew what was about to happen, and desperately pleaded with FEMA Director Michael D. Brown, Homeland Security Chief Chertoff, and the President, to act. Ms. Zahn showed a video clip of the President and some aides sitting around a table, telling the FEMA people that everything would work out. After Katrina passed, neither he, nor his FEMA and Homeland Security subordinates realized that thousands of people were suffering, and many dying, in the Superdome and in the New Orleans Convention Center. Now, FEMA Director Brown is gone, but the question remains as to why he was ever in charge of FEMA.
In 2001 Brown was appointed FEMA’s general counsel. In 2002 he was appointed Deputy Director, and in 2003 he was appointed to the FEMA Director’s job. Certainly Congress has to answer for not thoroughly questioning Brown at his confirmation hearings. But he was Bush’s choice, and Bush must take responsibility for the appointment. Brown was chosen because he was a good friend of former FEMA Director Allbaugh, who was formerly Texas Governor Bush’s Chief of Staff, and when Bush brought Allbaugh to Washington, Allbaugh brought Brown. Then it was up through the FEMA ranks, despite his thin to non-existent disaster management experience, (Time.com 8 September 2005), resulting in him being completely overwhelmed by Katrina’s aftermath. Perhaps he initially felt comfortable with the administration’s view of FEMA as part of the government’s “last resort” option to disaster. This might explain why, after Katrina, Brown quickly began “denying problems, then appearing to blame local and state officials and later admitting he was unaware 20,000 evacuees were stranded in the New Orleans convention center 24 hours after it was on the news.” (“‘Average’ past trails troubled FEMA chief.” Anita Kamur, St. Petersburg Times Online World and Nation online 10 September 2005).
But, what about Brown’s boss, the boss? Did the President really believe it when he told Brown, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job ”? He seemed as unaware as Brown that thousands suffered in brutal conditions throughout New Orleans. Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Bush cut and cleared brush on his ranch as Katrina loomed, struck, and left thousands desperate and destitute. It was his job as the President to get on top of the burgeoning disaster. He didn’t, and people died. It is true that properly coordinated disaster preparations and response also depended upon Congress, and upon state and city officials. But it is ultimately the President’s job, as Hamilton wrote, to exercise “energy” in the executive office. And the position must be held responsible when presidential duties and responsibilities are neglected.
Some of my European friends noted that their parliamentary systems are better equipped to hold executives accountable. In the wake of a massive government failure and potential collapse, the Prime Minister might resign, and new elections would be called, or a new Prime Minister would be chosen. Parliamentary systems are less stable, in that their election “clocks” are not as rigid as in the American system. But they also provide a greater opportunity to hold executives accountable for their actions between elections.
Americans know that every four years, there is a presidential election on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The American founders specifically constructed a system that separates the executive and legislative branches of government, and provides for fixed elections and terms of office. And, since it is possible that an executive might not “faithfully execute the office,” they provided the institution of impeachment. The House impeaches, and a Senate trial follows. Impeachment, then, is an important check on an executive who worries not about being turned out of office until the next election, or in Bush’s case, need not worry about facing the electorate a third time.
As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist #69, the President is not a king, in that he “would be amenable (liable) to personal punishment and disgrace,” that is, impeachment. And in Federalist #65 Hamilton asks, what is “the true spirit of the institution (impeachment) itself? Is it not designed as a method of NATIONAL INQUEST into the conduct of public men?” (Hamilton’s emphasis added). Impeachment should not be taken lightly, but neither should it be feared. It is the appropriate way to hold responsible the person who occupies the unique office of the American presidency.
Bill Clinton did not deserve to be impeached for his lies to his family, to his staff, and to all Americans, about what was essentially a private matter. But, at the least, his impeachment allowed for a Senate trial that made quite clear the frivolous nature of the attempt to remove him from office. George Bush’s failures before, during, and after Katrina’s destructive impact, are far from frivolous. They cost many their lives and their livelihoods. On “Meet the Press” on 25 September, Aaron Broussard of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana asked and answered a crucial question. “Did bureaucracy commit murder? Absolutely.” Moderator Tim Russert probed further, “At all levels of government? Federal, state and local?” Broussard’s response was “Yes.”
For me, Broussard’s implication included Bush in his charge against government officials. Still, as with Clinton, impeachment and a Senate trial do not presage conviction and removal from office. Following impeachment, a Bush trial would require the President to defend his conduct in a legal arena specifically constructed for American public officials. Most importantly, it would permit a thorough exploration of the non-response to Katrina. Whatever the Senate decided, the trial would place the Bush administration’s culpability in the historical record, so future generations could know the truth.
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Note to readers: for additional essays on Hurricane Katrina and the life and art from that region, see the PopMatters blog, “Storyville“.