Katrina And The Beast

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, front left, California Gov Arnold Schwarzenegger, front center, and FEMA chief David Paulison, second row center, tour Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2007. The stadium is being used to shelter wildfire evacuees.
AP/San Diego Union-Tribune, Howard Lipin
This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

The big news headline for the fires now called The Beast is this: "Few Die In Massive Southern California Wildfires."

It is that rare thing, a good news headline, if only in a silver-lining kind of a way. It is also the polar opposite (and, yes, I know the poles are melting and that's why we have wildfires and floods, etc.) of the news headline that flooded out of Hurricane Katrina: "Many Die, Suffer In Massive Katrina Flooding Due To Local, Federal Failure."

One possible lesson from this is that all levels of government learned the hard way from Katrina that they can't blow the big ones. After the disastrous handling of that disaster, there was a flood of punditry proclaiming that "competence" would become the primary demand made by political consumers. The idea was that the polarized and schizophrenic vox populi might stop arguing over whether government should be big or small and focus instead on making it minimally able to do the basics. Candidates would emphasize that management function and steer away from ideology and high-flying rhetoric.

That, of course, did not come to pass. Yes, President Bush learned enough to act involved and he headed to California right away. But that is stagecraft not statecraft. It is politics not governing.

Ray Nagin was re-elected mayor in New Orleans. Republicans did lose their hold in Congress, but because of the Persian Gulf not the Gulf of Mexico. None of the major presidential candidates in this cycle are campaigning on government competence and efficiency more than usual. Office-seekers always promise clean and able government. This Congress has passed little substantial legislation and has not addressed the deficit, entitlements or tax reform.

The amorphous beast known as Government - state, local and federal - is no more or less competent than usual in any generalized way. The truth is more prosaic. Most of the time large organizations face a crisis the response is chaotic and the outcome is neither failure nor success, but somewhere in the middle. The more organizations that are involved, the more chaos ensues.

The disaster of Katrina was exacerbated by political corruption in Louisiana and Mississippi, cronyism at FEMA, chronic under-funding of infrastructure maintenance and emergency preparedness. But a response that was deemed a stunning success would have been an anomaly, a shocker.

That is all good reason to be especially attentive to and grateful for the more skillful handling of The Beast. Over the next few days and weeks, there will be investigations and news stories that will uncover acts of stupidity, ineptness and bureaucratic bone-headedness. I would suggest focusing on the stories of bravery, ingenuity and cooperation instead.

The team that looks good on paper does not always win, as the Colorado Rockies have proven so perfectly this year. Part of what makes a winner is confidence, guts and attitude. We the voters, the political consumers of America, have allowed a generation of politicians to de-motivate and degrade government and public service.

It is not just an issue of small budgets and pork-barrel politics, though that matters greatly. Candidates get elected by declaring that "government is the problem, not the solution." And they attack each other relentlessly. We in the news business rarely are willing to cross the street to find an example of public servants who aren't in the military doing something well. I'm guilty as hell of this myself.

And in this period of political climate change, we -- the spoiled, litigious and generally ungrateful citizens - expect sacrifice, perfection and accountability from our public servants. We resent our tax bills and berate not just politicians but government workers. When things go wrong, we are shocked and outraged and want scalps.

This no way to create a winning government. We're like George Steinbrenner and our government plays like the Yankees, not the Rockies.

Good behavior in government and in bureaucracies is rarely rewarded, especially in public. The fact that so few people died amidst a "perfect storm" of fire and the evacuation of over a million people is astounding. It's the headline.

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