10/26/2007

California, Fires, Race, and Partisanship

The California fires have been the big story in the news this week. As tragic as they may be, the media love such stories because of the wealth of story ideas they generate. Human interest stories about rebuilding, the criminality angle stemming from arson investigations, health stories about breathing in soot, political stories comparing Bush's response now with Bush's response during Hurricane Katrina, and stories of heroism on behalf of firefighters and emergency rescue personnel ensure that there won't be any slow news days for awhile. Unfortunately, some of what's being reported also illustrates what's wrong with America these days. I've been watching this media coverage over the past few days and have made a few observations.

Partisanship: Black vs. White

Blacks, especially those in Louisiana displaced by Hurricane Katrina, are listening to the media coverage of this disaster carefully. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there was a chorus of politicians and pundits who said they should not rebuild the communities in and around New Orleans because the city was below sea level and at high risk of experiencing a similar disaster in the future. One of the common criticisms from Blacks during this time was that if Katrina had happened in a majority White area (such as Southern California), these politicians and the government would take the disaster more seriously and questions about the wisdom of rebuilding would never enter the equation. Obviously, the California fires and Hurricane Katrina are catastrophes of two entirely different scales. California and Louisiana have two different governors with two different skill sets and two different styles of leadership. They have two different state legislatures, two different economies, and two different demographic composites. However, the California hills are in the middle of wildfire country just as New Orleans is in the middle of hurricane country. Fairly or unfairly, a lot of Black voters are listening to the way the media and politicians talk about rebuilding the communities in San Diego County and wonder why it's okay for those (mostly White) residents to rebuild, but not okay for the (mostly Black) residents of New Orleans to rebuild. Underneath all the fear and sadness associated with this tragedy, there is a sense of resentment among many Blacks who feel there is a level of disparity regarding the way they were treated during Katrina and the way the Southern Californians are being treated now. And that is unfortunate.

Partisanship: Unpresidential leadership

George Bush's remark that "it makes a significant difference when you have a person in the statehouse willing to take the lead" was both inappropriate and unpresidential. Bush is well aware that the California fire disaster gave him a second chance when it comes to responding to natural disasters at home, so he obviously remembers Katrina and all the players involved there. While he didn't name names, it was obvious that he was talking about Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco. For all of Gov. Blanco's shortcomings during Katrina, there was no reason for him to disparage her when talking about the California disaster. When you talk about staying positive, healing, and the need for everyone to come together, what's the point of making cheapshots at the expense of state leaders who are unrelated to the situation at hand? At what point do we all become Californians? And shouldn't we expect a bit more maturity from our national leader? Comments such as this remind voters of one thing they particularly dislike about President Bush--his inappropriate remarks during times of crisis. (You can read more about Bush's "do over" here.)

Partisanship: A lack of respect

California's lieutenant governor, Democrat John Garamendi, angrily said that while they would be cordial to Bush during his visit, it was largely a "public relations" stunt of questionable value. Unfortunately for Garamendi, while it may be okay for private citizens to express such views, elected officials, especially high level ones like the lieutenant governor, should afford the president a certain level of respect, whether you support Bush or not. It is unbecoming for a lieutenant governor to bash the nation's chief executive prior to his visit to the disaster area. And of course, if Bush decided not to go to California, would the lieutenant governor criticize him for being too detached?

Partisanship: Left vs. Right

Lt. Gov. Garamendi then suggested the disaster response would have been far better had the California National Guard not been in Iraq:

"How about sending our National Guard back from Iraq, so that we have those people available here to help us?"
In response to this, California congressman and Republican presidential candidate Duncan Hunter said:
"...[Y]ou can put the entire U.S. Army in front of [the fires] and you are not going to stop it and the proof of that is this. ... You simply don't throw a wall of bodies up against an incoming wall of flame that is coming with high winds behind it."
So in short, he was suggesting that it didn't make any difference at all whether the National Guard was in California or in Iraq. End of story.

Of course, conservatives and Republicans pounced on Garamendi's remarks and said that the California fires had been "politicized" by Democrats. Of course, these are the same Republicans who couldn't stress enough during Katrina how the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana were both Democrats. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour also made the "connection" between the chaos in Louisiana compared to Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, all of which happened to have Republican governors. So Republicans' outrage over Garamendi's remarks is a bit insincere.

Had enough yet? Ruben Navarrette certainly thinks so.

All of these remarks illustrate the partisan bimodal thinking about serious issues that does such a great disservice to the nation. It would be nice if we could have a serious discussion about troop levels and resources in Iraq without making it sound like taking all the troops out would solve all the states' problems or that no benefit could be obtained whatsoever by keeping all the National Guard troops over there. National Guard troops in Iraq could certainly be used to help deal with situations that arise domestically. After all, the firefighters and emergency response teams could use all the help they can get. But to blame Iraq for an inadequate emergency response that has generally received good reviews is overly pessimistic. And it is unseemly to use calamities such as these fires as an opportunity to score political points.

Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson captures the essense of this nonsense perfectly. At what point does partisanship become an unfunny joke? While it may be fun to crow about winning an election, a debate, or a news cycle, there are still real issues to deal with that affect real lives. It would be nice if people on all sides took these issues more seriously.

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