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FEMA, CDC and Bush's Potemkin Presidency

October 26, 2007

Two stories this week once again highlighted for Americans the Potemkin Presidency of George W. Bush. Confronting Stephen Colbert's maxim that "reality has a well-known liberal bias," the Bush administration tried to pull the wool over the eyes of Congress and the media. On Wednesday, the White House acknowledged it "eviscerated" the testimony of CDC Julie Gerberding on the health impacts of global warming. And on Thursday, Bush's FEMA director Harvey Johnson staged a faux news conference about the California wildfires, complete with agency staffers posing as reporters.
No doubt anxious to avoid a repeat of the black eye over its calamitous bungling of the Katrina disaster, FEMA concluded that manufacturing stories for media consumption was preferable to actual accountability. As the Washington Post documented:

Reporters were given only 15 minutes' notice of the briefing, making it unlikely many could show up at FEMA's Southwest D.C. offices. They were given an 800 number to call in, though it was a "listen only" line, the notice said -- no questions. Parts of the briefing were carried live on Fox News, MSNBC and other outlets.
Johnson stood behind a lectern and began with an overview before saying he would take a few questions...He was apparently quite familiar with the reporters -- in one case, he appears to say "Mike" and points to a reporter -- and was asked an oddly in-house question about "what it means to have an emergency declaration as opposed to a major disaster declaration" signed by the president. He once again explained smoothly...
...Of course, that could be because the questions were asked by FEMA staffers playing reporters. We're told the questions were asked by Cindy Taylor, FEMA's deputy director of external affairs, and by "Mike" Widomski, the deputy director of public affairs. Director of External Affairs John "Pat" Philbin asked a question, and another came, we understand, from someone who sounds like press aide Ali Kirin.

Still, not everyone on Team Bush was on the same page when it came to avoiding the Katrina media disaster at all costs. Former FEMA head Michael Brown didn't get the memo, alerting the media earlier this week that he was available for press inquiries. And President Bush couldn't help himself, taking a break from his tour with Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to supposedly comfort the people of Southern California by instead taking a cheap shot at Louisiana's Democratic Governor, Kathleen Blanco:

"It makes a significant difference when you have somebody in the statehouse willing to take the lead."

Meanwhile back in Washington, the White House took its campaign of denying global warming to the Centers for Disease Control and the halls of Congress. The report of CDC head Dr. Julie Gerberding to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee fell victim to the heavy hand of the White House. Cut from 12 pages to 6, Gerberding's testimony was stripped of references to specific diseases and other health consequences from continued warming of the Earth. As the AP noted:

The draft noted that "scientific evidence supports the view that the earth's climate is changing" and that many groups are working to address climate change. "Despite this extensive activity, the public health effects of climate change remain largely unaddressed. CDC considers climate change a serious public health concern," the draft declares.
That paragraph was not in Gerberding's text as approved by the White House.
Referring to the draft, one CDC official familiar with both versions, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the review process, said that "it was eviscerated."

While Gerbering herself downplayed the intervention of the White House, this is far from the first time the Bush administration has doctored scientific reports and testimony. As I first detailed in April 2005 ("The Potemkin President"), From rented reporters, purchased pundits, and rigged rallies to scripted sessions, fake news and pseudo-science, an unapologetic White House has sought to alter public perceptions to control political debate - and reality itself.
The instances of media manipulation and outright fraud by the White House are simply too numerous to list here. The Bush administration paid "journalists" Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher for friendly coverage of the No Child Left Behind and new marriage initiatives. The Department of Health and Human Services distributed video news releases (VNRs) to peddle the President's Medicare drug program. The White House tried to block the release of Pentagon, NASA an other studies on the impact of global warming. The administration stonewalled decision by FDA career staffers to make the emergency contraceptive Plan B available for over the-counter sales. And former Surgeon General Richard Carmona found his report "Call to Action on Global Health" dead on arrival with Bush White House political commissars.
While his administration continues to erect its Potemkin facade to, in the President own words. "catapult the propaganda," George W. Bush is back to doing what he does best: scripted appearances before friendly, invitation-only audiences.
UPDATE: FEMA's press conference fraud was an affront so egregious that even members of the Bush administration denounced it. Just a day after defending the White House's editing of the CDC report and praising the health benefits of global warming, Dana Perino claimed "It is not a practice that we would employ here at the White House or that we - we certainly don't condone it." Meanwhile, Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Laura Keehner called Johnson's performance a "stunt" that was "inexcusable to the secretary." Apparently, DHS honcho Michael Chertoff had a "gut feeling" a staged press conference was a bad idea...

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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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