Superficiality has no place in disaster

By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated Columnist

Apparently, Brownie wasn’t the only one.

You remember the grief that fell on Michael Brown, former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency last month after the release of some embarrassing e-mails.

They revealed that as Hurricane Katrina was submerging New Orleans and shredding Biloxi, Brown and his aides were exchanging e-mails on trivial matters, including the question of which clothes would make him “look more hard-working” on television.

The e-mails were released at the request of a Democratic congressman to embarrass Brown, whose agency is widely felt to have bungled the federal response to the storm.

Now, as a means of ensuring the goose is served sauce similar to that presented the gander, Republican aides to a House panel investigating that response have released e-mails sent by subordinates of Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Suffice to say, they do not present her administration in a heroic light. Rather, they prove — not that proof was needed — that shallowness is not solely a GOP value.

“Please put (Blanco) in casual clothes, a baseball cap, etc.,” wrote Liz Mangham, a PR consultant to the governor on Sept. 2, four days after the storm. “She needs to visit a shelter in prime time and talk tough, but hug some folks and be sensitive.”

Mangham added that Blanco “looks … too comfy in her suit. Please put the secretaries in caps and jeans … I don’t care if they are in the field or not … they should look like they are.”

Kim Fuller, another gubernatorial flack, echoed that theme two days later, suggesting that Blanco “might dress down a bit and look like she has rolled up her sleeves. I have some great Liz Claiborne sports clothes that look kind of Eddie Bauer, but with class, but would bring her down to (the) level of getting to work.”

Fuller also thought it would be good if the governor could be seen “doing something “physical. … Maybe if she is with the troops she can put a few bags of ice in the hands of the citizens who need it. Make sure she is not wearing a suit, and make sure she has rough-looking shoes.”

For the record, people were dying as these e-mails were being sent. In that context, they are nothing less than vulgar.
I’m reminded of a T-shirt I once saw in church. Front side: Jesus is coming. Back side: Look busy. Not “be” busy, you understand. What matters most is simply to look the part.

Is it really necessary to point out that when people — your countrymen, no less — are homeless, hungry and dying in the face of natural disaster, your first duty as an official, not to mention as a member of the human race, is not to do political calculus or worry about how you look on camera? It is to give help.

Apparently, that no longer goes without saying. If there’s more damning evidence of how superficial, one-dimensional and petty our political life is in this country, I can’t name it.

I am neither unaware of nor unsympathetic to the ways in which television has changed politics in the last half century. Nixon lost a presidential debate and a presidential campaign, some say, because he looked haggard onstage next to the handsome and virile Kennedy. Kennedy understood the importance of television imagery. His opponent did not.

That importance has only grown as television news — to say nothing of Internet news — has morphed into a communications megaplex that never sleeps. Perception becomes more important than reality, so perception has to be micromanaged, even at reality’s expense. Remembering to wear Liz Claiborne sports clothes that look kind of Eddie Bauer, but with class, comes to seem an issue of life and death importance.

But where Katrina was concerned, life and death were not about perception. They were about, well … living and dying. They were about a reality that could not be stage-managed.
It is shameful that some of us even tried.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: lpitts@herald.com