NPR Coddles God-Fearing Gov. Blanco, Avoiding Issues of Competence, Remodeling

March 3rd, 2006 2:02 PM

Hours before the AP released its videotape featuring just a voice of Gov. Kathleen Blanco insisting meekly that she didn’t think the levees had been breached, National Public Radio’s "All Things Considered" aired an interview of Gov. Blanco with "ATC" co-anchor Michele Norris. (She pronounces it "Me-chelle.") Norris tells the listener the audio is a bit dated ("We sat down with her in New Orleans this week"), but her questions are incredibly mild and sympathetic, with no question of Blanco’s judgment or competence during or since the hurricane and flooding -- or her "Martha Stewart" state office refurbishing (see below). 

Norris began: "The state’s been promised more than 10 billion dollars in recovery assistance from the White House, but Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco says the state needs much more help...She said lawmakers in Washington can’t fully understand her state’s needs until they see the devastation for themselves."

In a common, subtle move of media sympathy, Norris avoided airing her initial question, airing just the Governor’s answer, merely underlining the horror in the hurricane’s path. Blanco explained:

"It’s really frightening when you start in, you know, one of the neighborhoods, any neighborhood and house after house after house after house after house, and it goes on for block after block after block and mile after mile after mile of places that once had the laughter of children and parents who were working and struggling and, you know, living life and laughing and crying and, you know, just taking care of business. And now, their homes are empty and gutted, if they’re lucky, or totally gone. You know there’s life that’s been stilled. And when you have that experience, the magnitude of it is what moves the heart and the mind. And then they understand the reason for the big ask, the big amount of money that it takes to make up the difference."

Norris: "I’d like to ask you about the levees. There’s no plan right now to rebuild the levees to withstand a Level Five hurricane. Why not, especially after the city got socked?"

Blanco: "It’s called money. It’s called lots and lots of hundreds of millions of dollars. The Corps of Engineers has gotten approval to stand the levees back up to a Category Three. It has come to our attention that: one, the existing levees, in many cases, and in many places, were not even at what we would call category three protection. It’s also been noted that when the hurricane came into the city, it was not even a Category Three. It was sort of hovering between two and three, I think, at that point in time. That just means that the winds were slowed down, but the Corps of Engineers needs to be authorized to do the right kinds of studies to build the levees stronger."

Norris: "That’s, you’re talking long-term investment."

Blanco: "Exactly."

Norris’s only half-tough question was asking how she could request local residents and businesses to come back when she can’t insure that "they’re not in harm’s way," since "I’m wondering if the building is getting ahead of the levees there." Blanco says merely that no one can guarantee safety, but the Corps of Engineers is rebuilding a safer environment. Then Norris really uncorked a champagne question:

Norris: "You are an optimist, I understand, by nature. It’s also your job to be optimistic, to keep people here pumped up, even when they’re going through such a difficult time. But at the end of the day, when you are in your private space and you take off your official hat and you’re in your own home in your own private space, what haunts you at night? What keeps you up?"

Blanco:"Well, at the end of the day, I really have to turn my entire day’s work and my next day’s work over to the Lord. I talk to God and just say that, you know, only you, Lord, know where this next move has to be made, how we can actually make all of this happen. I think that God has erased our world. Not all of it was beautiful, but He’s given us another chance to correct the problems that we were confronted with. And shame on us if we don’t do it right this time."

Norris didn’t take the time to ask for Blanco’s response to the House Government Reform Committee’s take on the state government’s Katrina response. As NPR’s Pam Fessler reported on "Morning Edition" on February 16, "Investigators say that state and local officials took extraordinary measures to evacuate more than a million people from the Gulf Coast, but that they didn't do enough. The report faults Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans' Mayor Ray Nagin for waiting too long to order a mandatory evacuation. And [Congressman Tom] Davis says, they failed to use state and local assets, such as buses, to help those without their own means to leave the city."

Norris was certainly too favorably focused on displaying Blanco’s great compassion for the Katrina victims to bring up another NPR program, "News and Notes With Ed Gordon." On January 3, substitute host Farai Chideya reported Gov. Blanco was looking a little less sensitive to the hurricane images: "The Louisiana governor is trying to get her Martha Stewart on and really spend a little over half a million dollars, $565,000, on remodeling the state office. Is this the right time for that?"

Liberal professor Mary Frances Berry said no: "Well, it's not the right time. And down here, you know, being down here, it really is a tale of two cities, those who have and those who don't and those who are struggling and everybody's working hard trying to put things together all along the Gulf Coast and here in the city. The governor--I understand that they made this contract before Katrina happened, and they claim that if they don't spend this $564,000 that they'll have to pay it anyway because they already have the contract. But she's damned if she does and damned if she doesn't. In a way, it may be better if she just simply ate it and didn't do it because she has enough problems now with people saying that she's inept, incompetent, out of touch and doesn't care, which I'm not sure is absolutely true."

Michelle Malkin hit "Queen Kathleen" for that at the time, quoting from the Baton Rouge Advocate: "The newly refurbished office space on the sixth floor of the State Capitol includes hookups and mounts for two flat screen televisions, Swedish granite countertops, walnut paneling and frosted laminated glass." Imagine how Brian Williams or Anderson Cooper could have emoted for the victims over that set of images.

PS: "ATC" co-anchor Melissa Block interviewed Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour on Thursday night’s show as well. Block wasn’t aggressive, but in comparison to compassionate Blanco, NPR seemed to be nudging Barbour with the idea that maybe he was more concerned about developers than the poor with these questions:

– "The people who are in those FEMA trailers are supposed to be in them for 18 months. Do you think that’s a realistic timeframe, and where would they go after that?"

– "When you have a storm of this magnitude, wiping out so much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, you end up with basically a clean slate for redeveloping that coast. What’s the vision for the state?" (Barbour promised the state would come back "bigger and better.")

– "There are people, of course, though, who would say, you know, bigger is not necessarily better. What’s to keep big interests, big developers, maybe hotels or casinos from building in places where maybe just single-family homes were before, people who don’t have the money to rebuild on the coast?"

Another mild sign of the mood check is in the website headlines. The headline for Barbour is "Missisippi Governor Sees Opportunity for Rebuilding." The Blanco headline is "Louisiana Governor Reviews Lessons of Katrina."