The Corner

Was Clinton a Hurricane Genius?

Matthew Yglesias seems quite upset by my shameless NewsBusters plug this morning. (I’ve been Tapped, indeed!) He says it’s rarely worth noting the obvious that I’m a “fool,” but I have demonstrated that the conservative critique of the media has “morphed into a willy-nilly assault on the idea of objective reality.”

First, I had the audacity to point out Andrea Mitchell suggested Clinton was a better Hurricane President than either of the Bushes. He suggests it’s implausible that Mitchell could favor Democrats since she’s Mrs. Alan Greenspan. (By this sterling line of argument, James Carville cannot never favor Democrats since he’s Mr. Mary Matalin.) He thinks the charge that Clinton’s emergency management was sheer brilliance is objective reality, a “factual claim,” as opposed to “Bush’s habit of giving FEMA jobs to political cronies with minimal experience in disaster relief .” (This is FEMA boss Michael Brown’s bio: you decide if his experience is minimal.) I don’t think Yglesias read the actual transcript on the link. Mitchell is not acting as objective reporter, but as partisan analyst, to claim Bush I “stumbled,” the Clinton folks really turned it around in the “intervening years,” and now it’s “sorely lacking” again.

What’s really missing in the Andrea Mitchell analysis is context. Clinton was certainly a genius at maximizing disaster for political gain. (See Jim Bovard’s pieces from the Clinton years here.) Or for Yglesias, let’s suggest he digest an old 1997 Jodie Allen piece from Slate on “Defining Disaster Down,” which spreads the blame around, but still notes that FEMA spending includes some politicized fat content. Allen noted:

Spending on disasters by FEMA burgeoned to $13 billion over the last five years from $3.3 billion over the previous five. Billions more were spent collectively by some 28 other federal agencies such as the Small Business Administration and the departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, and the Interior. Before 1993, no snowstorm or blizzard had been declared a “major disaster or emergency” by the president (though federal help had been offered in a dozen or so other “winter events” in which additional damage, such as the downing of utility lines, had occurred). Since 1993, nearly four dozen severe winter storms have been so designated, 17 in 1996 alone. Last year, in fact, was a banner year for calamity: FEMA found itself responding to 75 major disasters and eight emergencies so designated by the White House. The previous record, of 45 disasters and two emergencies, was set in 1992.

Of course, both 1992 and 1996 were election years. An unscientific mind, noting the tendency of relief aid to gravitate toward electorally rich states, might even conclude that the gods of mayhem conspire with incumbents to provide calamitous occasions for the demonstration of political compassion. After all, California, with 54 electoral votes, received 55 percent of federal disaster aid from 1989 to 1994, and Florida, with 20 votes, garnered 20 percent.

John Solomon, who provides these last data in an article in the October 1996 Washington Monthly, offers a less credulous explanation: Disaster relief is “a unique example of political pork that everyone accepts as kosher.”

Tim Graham — Tim Graham is Director of Media Analysis at the Media Research Center, where he began in 1989, and has served there with the exception of 2001 and 2002, when served ...

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