POLITICAL and civic reputations have taken a great tumble since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city of New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast, but one official has escaped responsibility for the federal government's miserable response to a widely predicted and surely preventable event - Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
Oh, for the days of Harry Truman, who kept a reminder on his Oval Office desk that "the buck stops here." Mr. Chertoff fired the luckless Michael D. Brown, former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, even though Mr. Brown reported to the secretary.
Granted, the hugger-mugger consolidation of agencies following the 9/11 attacks might be considered the root cause of Washington's unpreparedness, but that alone is not an adequate excuse for the federals' no-can-do response to human suffering after that disaster.
The General Accountability Office, an independent investigative agency, said in a preliminary report that Mr. Chertoff had failed to move quickly to mobilize resources despite advance warning that Katrina was likely to be a devastating storm.
Yet there was Mr. Chertoff, beaming at President Bush as he and other Cabinet officers awaited the State of the Union message, which devoted almost no attention to hurricane reconstruction. Why does this high-ranking official have such a Teflon shield in the face of one of the worst federal disaster responses in U,S. history?
The GAO said Mr. Chertoff was slow to designate Katrina as a "catastrophic event," which might have lit a fire under federal agencies, and that he had failed to establish a clear chain of command. "Neither the DHS secretary nor any of his designees filled this leadership role, which serves to underscore the immaturity of and weaknesses" of federal disaster coordination, the agency report said.
Of course, there is plenty of blame to go around at the local and state levels as well, and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin - both Democrats - may not escape electoral retribution for their roles either. Mayor Nagin seems to have answers to all the questions thrown at him in congressional hearings and other forums, but many of those answers sound like alibis.
The Senate hearings have had a partisan tinge, not least because the White House has been stonewalling and claiming executive privilege in response to requests for information by congressional investigators. Hurricanes are one kind of threat to homeland security that electronic eavesdropping cannot deter.
The public has already formed its opinions on Mr. Bush's Katrina performance and before too much longer may conclude that he has no clue about what to do in such cases, much less give leadership to recovery efforts. And that goes for Mr. Chertoff as well, if the GAO's report is any indication.