09/15/2006 02:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Herbert Hoover, Rock Star

At one point in the days or weeks following Katrina I was listening John Barry, author of the great book Rising Tide, about the 1927 Mississippi flood, give a radio interview. He noted that in 1927, presidential flood czar Herbert Hoover had managed to quickly mobilize a vast rescue effort for hundreds of thousands of people trapped on levees and rooftops across a vast area.

Why, Barry wondered, could we do that in 1927, then (despite our Internet connections, cell phones, cable nets) fall all over ourselves in 2005? To put it another way, in an age when teenagers can "swarm" instantaneously to any location using instant messaging, why couldn't Homeland Security figure out where the New Orleans Convention Center was?

There are, of course, important differences between the 1927 and 2005 floods. The Mississippi flooded over a vast area, and rescue efforts took weeks. The flooding of New Orleans was more geographically confined (a flood contained by, rather than escaping from, the levees designed to repel high water) and the bulk of the rescues ultimately took place over just a few days. One key difference was that thanks to the media, in 2005 everybody watched the appalling conditions as events unfolded, and the absence of help was instantly galvanizing.

But Barry's question still provokes. The up-and-coming Hoover was appointed by Calvin Coolidge, who apparently took zero personal interest in the flood but was under pressure from overwhelmed governors to get involved. But with presidential authority and the chops to use it, Hoover quickly put together a light and limber public-private organization that managed to deftly move people and resources around, saving many lives in the process. It wasn't perfect by any means, but on the fundamentals, it worked.

In 2005, by contrast, a much bigger, incredibly intricate apparatus of agencies tied itself in knots, unable to act quickly, decisively, or intelligently. FEMA had been absorbed into Homeland security, stripped of its authority and drained of expertise. Homeland Security, being focused on terrorist attacks, apparently didn't recognize hurricanes as potential catastrophes. No one was really in charge - nor is anyone now, as New Orleans struggles forward. What does it mean? Obviously, in the intervening decades, government got bigger and took on more responsibilities -- but in some important respects, it didn't get better. This can be used as an argument against big government, and certainly a government that's big mostly for the sake of paying lots of government employees and contractors isn't an improvement over "small." But that's too simple. A more subtle, and more disturbing answer, is that for a variety of reasons, government mediocrity seems to be more acceptable these days, or carries less of a penalty than it used to.

This, I think, is part of the current problem New Orleans faces. In some sense, the shock of the "heckuva job" done by FEMA and the rest has never worn off at any level of government. It's harder for true leadership to emerge from the ashes of a bureaucratic failure than from a record of success.