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Playing the Inside Game -- A Cautionary Tale

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This will be a lengthy post, because the events it describes have unfolded over the last six months. Hang with me, and I assure you that by the end you'll be angry -- either at me for telling you this story, or at the Obama administration.

Any regular reader of my stuff here knows I've been relentless in calling for first the Bush administration and lately the current group to get serious about addressing the problems of what nearly destroyed New Orleans -- namely, the twin challenges of (a) reversing the man-caused destruction of the coastal wetlands which reduce the severity of oncoming hurricanes and (b) rebuilding the tattered federally-built "hurricane protection system" which failed so disastrously four years ago this Saturday. After I started noticing the absence of any public words (let alone actions) on this subject from the new administration, several commenters here criticized me for, in essence, just running my mouth. "You're a celebrity," they mis-advised me, "go talk directly to the White House about it, like Brad Pitt." I thought I should start my Pitt emulation slowly at first, maybe by wooing Angelina Jolie, but after a couple of weeks, I took the challenge to play the inside game. I haven't written about it until now, because I wanted to see how it would play out before drawing conclusions.

Two facts motivated my decision: a friend in Chicago told me that David Axelrod was a fan of my radio show, and a friend in New Orleans was going to the White House to participate in the Stevie Wonder tribute. So I told the latter pal that, should he meet Axelrod, he might suggest we talk about New Orleans. Message delivered. Axelrod reportedly took my phone and email information. What followed was crickets and tumbleweeds.

I then told this story to a second friend in Los Angeles, a former Clinton administration ambassador. He said he was going to the White House later that week, and he'd deliver the message to Axelrod. More crickets, more tumbleweeds.

At this point, I was about to write an angry narrative of these non-events for HuffPo, but first, I had my assistant call Axelrod's office.

Bingo. Some days later, an aide with the real-sounding name of "David Washington" called me on the best-quality telephone connection I've ever heard. He asked me to explain my position, which was, in a nutshell, that the stimulus package had included zero money for coastal restoration or stronger hurricane protection, even while the Corps of Engineers announced it was adopting a "technically not superior" approach to part of the new system because of lack of money. I suggested that this situation was irksome to people for whom "technically not superior" did not live up to promises of rebuilding better. Mr. Washington listened, and said he'd have somebody who knew more about all this get back to me. Progress.

Except... that somebody turned out to be a legislative liaison person for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. I had called to complain about a robbery in progress, and they had connected me with the P.R. woman for the robbers.

We had some desultory conversations, she peddling the Corps' line -- this, remember, is the agency that built the system wrong the last time, and excoriated the critics who were first to point out that nettlesome fact -- and I asking pointed questions. Apparently tiring of the game, she turned me over to my next point of contact, Janet Woodka.

Name doesn't ring a bell? She's President Obama's appointee as the Gulf Coast Recovery Czar. Gulf Coast What? you ask. That's a post created during the Bush administration, filled then by a Fort Worth banker. Janet Woodka is a recognizable step up, a New Orleanian who formerly worked for Senator Mary Landrieu. Only two problems: her job, which entails coordinating the recovery efforts of federal agencies which have real budgets, has minimal resources, and minimal ability to knock heads together; and, the position is scheduled to expire at the end of September. Still, she seems smart, she seems to care, and she seems to believe. I express my concerns, I connect her to David Waggonner who is almost single-handedly spearheading an effort to infuse the hurricane protection rebuilding with the insights of Dutch experts, and we engage in an intermittently interesting telephone and email dialogue.

We finally meet in person at an Aspen Institute conference on New Orleans in early August. In speaking to the public, she manages to utter the sounds that casual listeners might mistake for reports of progress, but are really just bland reassurances: we're all very focused, robust inter-agency process, that sort of thing. She's good at it, and I feel slightly sorry for her.
But none of that is helping New Orleans.

Near the end of the conference, I relate this tale to an acquaintance wise -- or at least schooled -- in the ways of media and politics. I say I might try one more time to reach out to Axelrod himself. "Don't bother with Rahm Emanuel or Axelrod," he advised. Why? "Their only interest in all of this is destroying Bobby" -- a reference to the state's fast-talking Republican governor and possible 2012 Presidential candidate Bobby Jindal.

"You mean, the same way that the Bush crowd only cared about destroying Kathleen Blanco?" I asked. His smile was part-rueful, part-"It's never too late to get wise, bud".

On Sunday, six days before the fourth anniversary of the catastrophe that almost drowned New Orleans, President Obama gave an "exclusive" interview to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. If you want to hear it for yourself, go here. Along the way, he dropped a little message: Janet Woodka's office would be allowed to expire at the end of next month.

Experiment officially over. To be clear, I'm not upset I wasn't treated like a celebrity or given ego-satisfying access. Frankly, the inside game creeps me out, the flattery that you're "connected" can bring out the late Bob Novak in anyone. I'm just angry that New Orleans, which did not bring about its own disaster, is watching a second consecutive president trash his glib promises to "rebuild it better".

Obama supporters chided me, back in January and February, to "give him some time, he's only been in office for a month/two months/three months." I guess they knew what I didn't, that the presidency gets easier as you go along, that progressively fewer surprises get dumped on your desk as time passes. Obama's remarks about New Orleans during the campaign were anodyne boilerplate, and what he's giving us now is more of the same. He won't even do the obligatory photo-op in the city on 8/29; he told the Times-Picayune he'll come down "before the end of the year". He didn't say which year.