The newly released footage of officials briefing George Bush before Hurricane Katrina shows Michael Brown sitting at a laptop computer. Given the caricature of Incapability Brown, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the ex-FEMA director was playing solitaire: “Mr. President, I just can’t find a place for this king of hearts.” Instead, Brown is clear about the hurricane threat. He even anticipates the chaos that would later hit at the Superdome. “I’m concerned about … their ability to respond to a catastrophe within a catastrophe,” Brown told his bosses.
We see the president all the time in public settings, giving speeches, shaking hands, looking concerned. But this footage is fascinating because it is the first video I can recall of the president at work in private. It’s our chance to see how the image of the president painted by his allies compares with the actual man. And the result is somewhat alarming. Based on what I’d been told by White House aides over the years, I expected to see the president asking piercing questions that punctured the fog of the moment and inspired bold action. Bush’s question-asking talents are a central tenet of the president’s hagiography. He may not be much for details, say aides, but he can zero in on a weak spot in a briefing and ask out-of-the-box questions. I have been repeatedly told over the years that he once interrupted a briefing on national defense to pose a 30,000-foot stumper: What is the function of the Department of Defense?
So, surely during this briefing about an impending natural disaster, the president would have had a few pointed inquiries. The experts assembled in boxes on his screen like guests on Hollywood Squares had just told him the coming hurricane “was the big one” and talked about “the greatest potential for large loss of life.” Yet according to the Associated Press, which is the only press organization that has reviewed the video, Bush didn’t ask a single question in the briefing, but told officials “we are fully prepared.”
You know you’re in trouble when Michael Brown outshines you. But the president’s question-free briefing is more than a momentary bad piece of public relations. It’s a blow to a key Bush myth. The Bush management philosophy relies on him as an interrogator. He delegates, but that’s OK because he knows how to question those he empowers to make sure they’re focused. Question-asking is also a central public tool in the “trust me” presidency. We aren’t supposed to worry that the NSA wiretapping program goes too far because the president has asked all the questions. When the president was wrong about the level of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or the strength of the insurgency, it wasn’t because he didn’t ask enough questions, we have been told, it was because he was given the wrong answers.
Bush has long been criticized for being incurious. That isn’t always a bad thing. A president can be uninterested in visiting the Taj Mahal if he’s laserlike behind the scenes. Perhaps the Katrina briefing was an aberration. But I worry that it isn’t. Those in the room with him during other briefings also say he didn’t ask very sharp questions then, either. Former anti-terrorism official Richard Clarke and Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill both wrote about Bush’s lack of curiosity. L. Paul Bremer’s account of his 14 months in Iraq as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority inadvertently paints a similar picture. In briefings, Bush offered a pep talk—”pace yourself, Jerry”—and questions about tangential issues like whether the new Iraqi leaders would thank the Americans for their sacrifice. George Packer didn’t work for Bush, but his book The Assassin’s Gate paints a grim portrait of what happens when the president doesn’t ask the right questions: Factions within his administration take over and pursue their own agendas.
A White House spokesman told the AP that in this specific case the president had already received multiple briefings. Aides also leaked a transcript to Newsweek of another briefing in which Brown tells others that the president is engaged and asking questions. (Though they didn’t release any transcript that actually showed Bush asking those questions, just Brown’s secondhand account.)
But shouldn’t talk of catastrophe in the briefing AP acquired have spurred the president’s interest—no matter how many previous briefings he’d received? Was Michael Brown such a good briefer that everything was clear? I don’t know what question the president should have asked, but shouldn’t he have asked something?
The president has been at pains recently to show the public that he has grown and adapted while in office. When talking about Iraq, he has increased his references to lessons learned. Wednesday night, he responded to ABC’s Elizabeth Vargas’ questions about the slow federal response to Katrina by pointing out that the administration had learned the lessons of its failures. But learning lessons depends on asking questions—the right ones and a lot of them. Let’s hope one of the questions the president asked after the catastrophe was whether he had asked the right questions before it.