Dangling Man

Michael Brown twists slowly in the wind.

Will his head roll?

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Yesterday, White House Spokesman Scott McClellan was asked if the president had confidence in FEMA Director Michael Brown. He didn’t want to play the “blame game,” McClellan said, repeating the president’s talking point. Interpretation: maybe not so much confidence after all. Today, McClellan repeated the dodge. Administration officials not speaking from the podium were more direct: When Bush bucked up Brown on his first visit to the area (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”), it was “not a blanket statement.”

Let’s be serious. Michael Brown is a ghost. Firing him at this point would not be caving to the finger-pointers; it would merely be an act of compassionate conservatism. McClellan’s refusal to give even tissue-thin cover to the embattled bureaucrat is a public signal that the White House is hot-stepping away from him. During his visit to the affected region today, Vice President Cheney singled out Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for praise, but he did not mention the FEMA head.

In the ongoing relief effort, Brown has already been largely shoved aside. Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, the Coast Guard’s chief of staff, was assigned on Monday to be Brown’s deputy and to take over operational control, a move widely promoted as righting the FEMA ship. Administration officials have been saying that operations started clicking along nicely as soon as Brown was neutered.

The only functional responsibility Brown retains is that of chief punching bag: Editorial writers and politicians continue to call for his head, and petitions on the Internet advocating his resignation or dismissal flourish. His colleagues aren’t on his side, either. This week, leaked memos appeared showing that he waited until hours after Hurricane Katrina had already struck the Gulf Coast before asking his boss Chertoff to dispatch 1,000 Homeland Security workers to support rescuers in the region. While his colleagues are undermining him, he’s tried to keep a brave face. “People want to lash out at me, lash out at FEMA,” he told reporters. “I think that’s fine. Just lash out, because my job is to continue to save lives.”

If Brown hasn’t yet packed up his “me” wall, it may be because of his political utility as a scapegoat. As a focal point of public rage, Brown remains useful to Bush as a fall guy. But can we really believe that ultimate blame for the rescue debacle resides in a man who ended his memo to Chertoff asking for assistance with a simpering plaudit: “Thank you for your consideration in helping us to meet our responsibilities.” Someone who had to write that memo wasn’t powerful enough in the first place to have caused the system to fail at the federal, state, and local levels.

Of course, Washington has seen this piñata phenomenon before: the controversial government figure who walks upright while the steady drumbeat of damaging details heralds his inevitable undoing. Indeed, during his father’s term, George W. Bush was the hatchet man assigned to fire Chief of Staff John Sununu, who fought to retain his position long after official Washington had buried him and sent flowers.

What’s different in this administration is how seriously Bush ‘43 takes loyalty—and how much he resents the consensus view of the permanent government in Washington. When the elites start calling for a firing, the president usually rescues his top aides and allies from the delusion and upset of public limbo. That’s why past diagnoses of terminal conditions have so often been wrong. Washington wise men have declared Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld finished many times. They were certain Dick Cheney would never be kept on the ticket in 2004. It was a widespread assumption that John Bolton would never make it to the United Nations.

Bush has often privately told those under fire that such noises from the chattering class are actually a sign that “they must be doing something right.” To send the same message in public, he takes the wounded on a stroll before the cameras. When editorial writers were calling for Tom DeLay’s head, Bush brought the house majority leader on Marine One and strode in purposeful solidarity with him for the entire world to see. When Karl Rove’s role in exposing a CIA agent became public, Bush quieted calls for his political adviser’s head by strolling across the back lawn of the White House with him.

Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill may be the only official from this administration to have gone through the kind of public defrocking that Brown is now experiencing. O’Neill picked up on the signals and asked in November 2002, before a trip to war-torn Afghanistan, whether making the risky venture would be worthwhile if his job wasn’t going to be there when he returned. According to O’Neill, Chief of Staff Andy Card assured him he was safe in his post.

Three weeks later, he was fired.