Of the all stories coming out of the hurricane relief efforts, the ice saga is one of the most bizarre. For those following political cronyism, the ice and other stories would be hilarious if they were not so wasteful and misguided.
According to Wikipedia, the definition of cronyism includes politicians who “form a kind of aristocratic social hierarchy, influenced by self-serving friendships and family ties, to the extent that it corrupts public-serving economic and political ideals.”
The ice saga begins with Bush appointing a crony, 2000 campaign manager and Texas chief of staff, Joe Allbaugh, to head FEMA. Allbaugh brought a school chum, Michael Brown, along with him and recommended Brown to replace him when Allabaugh left to form his own consulting firm to “take advantage of business opportunities in the Middle East” following the Iraq war. Brown’s experience included a failed Congressional bid, where he drew 27 percent of the vote, and a stint at enforcing rules for the Arabian Horse Association.
During Hurricane Katrina, FEMA cronies ordered 182 million pounds of ice for relief efforts in New Orleans, to be delivered by some 4,000 drivers who drove the ice around the South for two weeks. As reported in The New York Times, a typical route involved moving ice from Wisconsin to Meridian, Miss., to Selma, Ala., to Memphis, Tenn. Drivers received double pay but were frustrated after long waits before being redirected.
One trucker lamented that he billed the government $15,000 for less than $5,000 worth of ice. Eventually, 59 percent of the ice was stored in freezers 1600 miles away from New Orleans, to await the next disaster. FEMA promised to correct the problem with a new barcode global positioning system “so literally we will know exactly where every bag of ice is.”
Another Bush crony and close personal friend, Karen Hughes, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, raised flaps in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt recently when she attempted to put a positive spin on the U.S. war in Iraq and Bush’s policies. Although she lacked national experience, Hughes, a former journalist and PR consultant, helped Bush become governor in Texas and served as his communications director in the White House. Known for her personal loyalty and devotion, Hughes praised Bush as a strong and decisive boss, and defended him on TV. Perhaps that’s why he appointed her to reach out to a hostile Muslim world.
In a meeting with Turkish women, the diplomatically inexperienced Hughes described herself as “a working mom.” Steven Weisman of The New York Times observed that the meeting began congenially but “tough talk followed quickly, politely but firmly.” Saudi women rejected her notion that they are oppressed and, in Egypt, Hughes brushed aside concerns about a civil war in Iraq and was met with skepticism and hostility. Weisman reported that traveling with Hughes “was at times like being trapped in a cable television infomercial with an emphasis on values like family and faith.” Hughes promised to return to the region with more sound bite messages proclaiming the greatness of President Bush.
A third cronyism story involves President Bush naming one of his personal lawyers, Harriet Miers, to the U.S. Supreme Court. Meirs lacks any judicial experience as a judge and is only the third non-judge nominated to the court in recent history: Richard Nixon nominated William H. Rehnquist and Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Abe Fortas.
Bush cited Meirs’ qualification as her ability to tell “the difference between right and wrong.” Meirs was once elected to a two-year term on the Dallas City Council. She worked as a lawyer for Bush when he was governor of Texas, as a staff secretary approving documents for Bush see in the White House, and recently, replaced Alberto Gonzales as Bush’s deputy chief of staff. So much for judicial experience.
The Washington Post reports that Meirs is “particularly valued in a White House where discipline in publicly articulating policy and loyalty to the president are highly valued.” Bush calls her “a trusted adviser,” although he once called her “a pit bull in size six shoes.” The closest she has gotten to the court is recommending federal appeals court candidates to Bush; ten out of 34 were rejected by the Senate for being extreme conservatives.
The American people deserve more than $2 billion in questionable hurricane housing replacement contracts written by FEMA; an air-headed smiley-faced propaganda effort to oppose Islam in the Middle East; and a Supreme Court nominee who knows nothing about the laws dealing with environmental protection, reproductive rights, corporate power, civil rights and church-state separation. Considering the highly trained and talented work force we have in the U.S., the president could find qualified people to fill political vacancies without relying on cronyism, i.e. personal loyalty and devotion, as the sole criterion for higher office.