Wednesday, September 28, 2005

A Michael Bilandic moment

Michael Brown came back to town this week, in the hope of rescuing his good name from the dustbin of history. Just weeks after his resignation in disgrace as Director of FEMA, Brownie appeared before a congressional panel to defend his record and his honor: "My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday that Louisiana was dysfunctional… I've overseen over 150 presidentially declared disasters. I know what I'm doing, and I think I do a pretty darn good job of it." He proceeded to trample on the Governor, the Mayor and a gaggle of other local officials in his game pursuit of higher ground.

But Brown, and to a great extent the members of the largely Republican panel, missed the point. Brown’s failure was not about whether food and water was or was not delivered to the Superdome or the Convention Center, it was about whether he recognized that the problem existed. Michael Brown sat on television and denied that he was aware that people were trapped without food or water.

It was a moment of Michael Bilandic proportions, and will not be erased by throwing local officials under the bus.

Michael who, you ask?

Every politician knows the story of Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic, Richard Daley’s successor whose career in the Windy City came to an ignominious end when he failed to meet the challenges of a snowstorm. When Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis donned a sweatshirt and grabbed a shovel for the cameras a few storms hence, it was Michael Bilandic whose image haunted him. Every mayor and governor since has made a point of rolling up their sleeves, throwing on the sweatshirt and getting to work––preferably in front of the cameras––when nature strikes. One can even argue that when Rudy Guiliani rose from the ashes of his own dying mayoral career to walk the streets of lower Manhattan in the days following 9/11, his inspirations were both heroic and Bilandic.

Michael Bilandic’s failure, however, was not that he failed to plow the streets, it was that he went on television and told the people that the streets were plowed when everyone knew that they were not. He denied what everyone else knew to be true. Michael Bilandic, presumed to be the Mayor who would hold down the fort for years between the reigns of Richard Daley the father and Richard Daley the son could have survived if either he had made sure the streets were plowed the streets, or if he had not insulted the public by saying they were plowed when they were not. His sins were both of omission and commission. He omitted plowing and he committed insult.

Bilandic’s career died that day, leading to the long years when Jane Byrne, Harold Washington, David Orr and Gene Sawyer all got their shot at running Massa Daley’s Plantation before the current Mayor Richard Daley arrived to bring Chicago back from the political wilderness.

Michael Brown seems to think that he is being blamed for leaving thousands of (mostly poor and mostly black) American citizens without food or water for four days. But he is not. It has become quite clear that there is a lot of blame to go around there. The State and the City both failed to plan and failed to execute. And any hurricane watcher from Hugo to Andrew, from St. Croix to Homestead, knows that FEMA dropping the ball is not a firing offense. Rather, Brownie’s offense was Bilandic. He sat on television with Brian Williams––who was on location in the Superdome––and expressed surprise that there were people in the Superdome or in the Convention Center at all. It was not that he failed deliver the goods, but rather that he failed to take note of what viewers around the world already knew––that there was a humanitarian disaster unfolding in Prime Time.

But Michael Bilandic is sleeping easier these days. The curriculum for Politics 101 is being rewritten, and his story may finally take a back seat. Michael Brown’s story will now be passed down from generation to generation as the archetype of obtuse disengagement. Michael Brown’s problem is that even if he was doing his job––hold on there, I did say if––it is his performance on the public stage, like that of Michael Bilandic before him, that will be preserved for posterity.

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