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From The Perception-Is-Reality Files

We're reminded by The Washington Post today that the investigations into the government response to Hurricane Katrina are not going to end anytime soon. And with millions of e-mails, documents and records to sift through, you can be pretty sure it's going to be awhile before a clear picture emerges of which officials knew what when and where many of the breakdowns occurred – if it ever does. But you can be sure of one thing – we'll get plenty of isolated examples of embarrassing, bad or seemingly negligent behavior.

We've already gotten a healthy taste of some of those examples and they've become a big piece in the finger-pointing battles between federal and state/local entities and Republican-Democrat sniping. They've also been fodder for the media to ridicule elected and appointed officials. Perhaps that's been deserved to some extent, but far too many in the press and public are ignoring the reality of how today's world operates – a world they've been complicit in helping create.

First we had former FEMA director Michael Brown who was taken down several notches when e-mails with his staff emerged showing him worried about his appearance as he did interviews during the aftermath of the disaster. In one, FEMA public affairs official Cindy Taylor wrote, "my eyes must certainly be deceiving me. You look fabulous -- and I'm not talking the makeup." In another one, Brown aide Sharon Worthy wrote, "in this crises and on TV you just need to look more hardworking ... ROLL UP THE SLEEVES!"

The e-mails made Brown appear he was preoccupied with his appearance (of course, it didn't help that he referred to himself as a "fashion God" in one response) and made him the object of ridicule. On the "CBS Evening News," anchor Bob Schieffer introduced the story this way:

"Which brings us to one of those 'You couldn't make this stuff up' stories. By now we all know about ousted FEMA Director Michael Brown's fumbling response to Hurricane Katrina. But today, we found out more about what was on his mind: Fashion, apparently."
In the report that followed, correspondent Bob Orr put it this way:
"A second round of e-mails just released by congressional investigators portray Brown as an out-of-touch bureaucrat preoccupied with his own appearance as New Orleans was drowning in despair."
Recently, in what could be some tit-for-tat attempt to turn the same weapon against Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, we found out that her staff had similar concerns. E-mails released by a House investigative committee this week included one from Blanco press secretary Denise Bottcher which read, "I'm now a bit concerned that we're doing too many 'first lady' things and not enough John Wayne. Women are easily portrayed as weak, which (Blanco) has had a hard time overcoming. I will say again ... men cry -- compassion; women cry -- weak."

CBS' Bob Orr reported on those as well:

"As New Orleans was drowning and evacuees huddled in the squalid Superdome, the staff of Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco feverishly tried to avoid a public relations disaster. New e-mails just released by Republican congressional investigators show the governor's staff worked to portray her as a hands-on, in-control and working executive."
Now before everyone goes crazy here, I'm not in any way trying to absolve Brown or Blanco from responsibility in what went wrong with the response to Katrina. Things clearly didn't go the way most Americans would expect them to and I think most everyone hopes we'll be able to find out why and do whatever needs to be done to ensure the next disaster is met with more adequate response. It's also understandable that knowing officials with so much responsibility were occupied at all with their personal appearance or issues is infuriating to so many. In some ways, those e-mails seem to say all there is to know about where the system broke down.

What I think is important to point out in the midst of all this however is the place image has assumed in our politics. If you think there's no difference between watching the president tour a disaster zone in a dazzling suit or a work shirt with rolled-up sleeves, you haven't paid a whit of attention over the past couple decades. Political image-makers know it, politicians know it, the press knows it and the public does too. It's a game we've gotten to know all too well.

It's often the wrong image that is so important, whether it's Michael Dukakis riding in that tank or President Bush trying to open a locked door during his Asian trip. Sometimes the right image is as important as the policy or words offered up, like President Reagan's speech in front of the Berlin Wall or Bush's embrace of a firefighter and bullhorn atop the rubble of the World Trade Center.

The media is quick to jump on an unfortunate image. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was ridiculed in many quarters for clothes she wore last year in a trip to Germany. Here's how Washington Post writer Robin Givhan described the outfit:

"As Rice walked out to greet the troops, the coat blew open in a rather swashbuckling way to reveal the top of a pair of knee-high boots. The boots had a high, slender heel that is not particularly practical. But it is a popular silhouette because it tends to elongate and flatter the leg. In short, the boots are sexy."

And: "Rice's coat and boots speak of sex and power -- such a volatile combination, and one that in political circles rarely leads to anything but scandal. When looking at the image of Rice in Wiesbaden, the mind searches for ways to put it all into context. It turns to fiction, to caricature. To shadowy daydreams. Dominatrix! It is as though sex and power can only co-exist in a fantasy. When a woman combines them in the real world, stubborn stereotypes have her power devolving into a form that is purely sexual."

That article was buzzed about for weeks. Whether it had any impact whatsoever in the way Rice has performed her job is doubtful but it certainly speaks volumes about the importance of image – or at least the perception of that image. Remember that picture of the President smiling and playing guitar as Katrina was bearing down on the Gulf coast? You don't think the White House would love to have that one back?

Is it any wonder that our leaders worry so about their image and how they're being perceived by the public they're seeking to serve? Should we really be so surprised when they do?