Monday, November 21, 2005

A Banker's Discretion

The Washington Post would like you to meet Donald E. Powell, an inexperienced crony whom BushCo has put in charge of reconstructing New Orleans.

Powell is a self-made millionaire and lifelong Baptist who extols capitalism and ethics in speeches at business schools. When the White House called about the Katrina job, Powell said, he ignored doubters and cited a duty to serve.

"Most people said, 'You don't want to do that. The likelihood of failure is much greater than success,' " he said. "What they didn't know is, that's what really motivates me."

Powell, who pauses before speaking and squints when making a point, added: "There's always going to be pricking, shoving, pushing and jibes. I'm going to ignore that. . . . I have a mission . . . and nothing is going to deter me from that."
In short, it's the usual nonsense: quasi-religious triumphalism grafted onto entrepreneurial bluster and the cult of personality. Powell says, in essence, that the challenge appeals to him, and that he's got something to prove to those who say failure is more likely than success; the humanitarian, essentially collectivist aspect of the job seems to have eluded him.

One of Powell's most sterling qualities, to hear him tell it, is the ability to say "no" when necessary. The old-school public servant might've been overburdened by ethical responsibilities and common sense, but Powell casts off these shackles and pursues a higher calling:
In an interview last week, [Powell] contradicted an assertion by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) that he had committed the Bush administration to local leaders' $20 billion priority, strengthening the New Orleans levee system to withstand a Category 5 hurricane instead of the current Category 3....Powell, 64, a tall, low-key Texan who wears a cattleman's belt with a lone star under his suit, demurred. "The commitment is to build the levees back to a three . . . and then to study the five."
After San Francisco's Bay Bridge partially collapsed in the Loma Prieta earthquake, a CalTrans representative promised that they'd soon have it "just as strong as it was before the earthquake." Powell seems to favor a similar approach. Most people would see the recent flooding as empirical proof of the inadequacy of New Orleans' levees, but not Powell; he remains tough-minded and skeptical.

On the bright side, there's evidence that Powell's victims have maintained their swooning admiration for him, even as he sawed methodically at the limb to which they were clinging:
Powell's decisions in the boom-and-bust economy meant cutting jobs and foreclosing businesses, Marsh said. "He did all that, but still kept everyone's respect."
It's no surprise, given the man's thoughtful and deliberative nature:
He mentioned receiving two books, John M. Barry's "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America" and Michael J. Hogan's "The Marshall Plan: America, Britain and the Reconstruction of Western Europe, 1947-1952."
Who could fail to be impressed by the fact that the man in charge of cleaning up the worst disaster in American history has received a couple of books on flooding and reconstruction?

Of course, in George W. Bush's White House, reading a book is consistently portrayed as an act of unusual heroism and commitment; when people in the Administration really want to impress the out-of-touch eggheads in the liberal media, they mention that they're reading a book about the problem they're expected to solve. That noble sacrifice, when combined with the businessperson's vague commitment to "problem-solving" or "continuous improvement," comprises a proven recipe for success no matter how many times it fails, and how many people its failures kill or injure.

Personally, if I were going under the surgeon's knife, I wouldn't be reassured to see my doctor flipping frantically through a textbook on human anatomy.

Powell, of course, has other qualities inherent in those who labor in the world of high finance. Discretion, for instance:
Powell employs a banker's discretion in describing his relationship with the president and his father, George H.W. Bush, whose presidential library and school Powell helped launch. An overnight guest at Camp David with his wife, Twanna, Powell said the current president is "someone I admire. . . . His values. His heart. His will to win."
"A banker's discretion" is one way of putting it. "A wariness about revealing himself to be a wholly owned subsidiary of BushCo" would be another, less charitable description.

At the risk of sounding shrill, I'm going to suggest that anyone who claims to admire George W. Bush's "values" is a liar, a fool, or a cynic. It's not possible to argue, at this late date, that Bush has any recognizable values at all. The values he claims to have derived from Christianity, he's betrayed or downplayed repeatedly. And the myth of his personal integrity has been exploded by his countless lies, compromises, and broken promises. Bush's only consistent loyalty is to crony capitalism; he's a human windsock who changes direction with the flow of dirty money. His ability to placate this country's God-bullies has less to do with his sincerity, spirituality, or coherence than with the desperate need of that gentle flock to believe that it's on the verge of seizing power. The elevation of Bush to the status of "Bible-believing Christian" is a remarkably daft bit of wishful thinking even within the hypercredulous context of American fundamentalism.

Perhaps Powell will surprise us all, and do a good job. Stranger things have happened in American politics, I suppose. But there's one quote, in particular, that makes me fear the worst.
"My accountability is to the president," he added later.
This is an admirably terse way of saying, "I can do whatever I please, without being held responsible in any meaningful way." Powell's accountability is to the people of New Orleans, and the people of the United States. The fact that he doesn't understand this is worrisome, to say the least.


Wayne said...

With regard to Bush's credibility I only hope his low popularity in the polls reflects an irreversible opinion that coincides with your and my own. Why it took so many so long to figure it out just floors me. Why even a third still believe in his machinations is even more disheartening.

On the positive side, his putative emasculation is something to be qualifiedly thankful for. The only qualification is that there's an awful lot to repair and three years without a president of any note suggests it ain't gonna get done.

Best wishes Phila on Thanksgiving this year.

Kate said...

Spot on as usual, Phila. Dang.

I'd say that if New Orleans manages to repair itself, it will have been despite the machinations of Powell and the other Texans Bush appointed, not because of them. As for building the levees back to their pre-Katrina status, it sounds so much like the machine politics of Chicago where we'll see the same road paved two, three times in one season because the first time (and sometimes the second) were deemed poorly done. The truth is constant redos give ample opportunities to have each side of the city get its piece -- under Daley, we say the Southside Irish and the Westside Irish each need to play, but it could just as easily be the Northside Polish and Southside Polish or whatever. Cronyism is cronyism is cronyism.

Poor, poor New Orleans. First Katrina and then Bush. I don't know how much more that city can take.

richard P. McDonough said...

and I would suggest looking at
from time to time.