(Providence, Rhode Island) – We are digging out from two to three feet of snow across much of the Northeast and New England. I have been working around the clock (like many others) and am exhausted. But I am reminded today about how much weather events and politics are intertwined. So, we’ll chat about that today.
“The Politics of Snow” – My friend, coworker and fellow Marquette graduate, Buddy Cianci, likes to talk about what he calls “the politics of snow.” Buddy was Mayor of Providence for over 20 years (including the “Blizzard of ‘78”) and knows the topic well. Sometimes how you handle or mishandle a natural disaster can make you a political legend, or a political has-been. Mother Nature can be a cruel political foe.
“The Blizzard of ‘78” – Maybe the worst blizzard to hit New England prior to this weekend was the “Blizzard of ’78.” In fact, it was almost 35 years to the day before this latest storm. But a genteel, Irish politician by the name of Joe Garrahy was Governor of Rhode Island at the time. He did hour after hour of media briefings broadcast to the public, all the while wearing a simple plaid flannel shirt. It made him a legend. When he died nearly two years ago, all that people talked about were Garrahy, the blizzard and the flannel shirt. Now that’s a political signature!
“Snow Early; and Snow Often” – Okay, I am ripping off the famed old Chicago adage,“Vote early, and vote often.” But Chicago has seen its share of political snowstorms. In 1976, Michael Bilandic became Mayor of Chicago after Richard J. Daley died in office. But by April of 1979, Bilandic was voted out of office after a severe blizzard hit the city and he was widely blamed for an inadequate response. Politics is a fair-weather business!
“Katrina ‘Katastrophe’” – In modern time, no other storm has had the political fallout of Hurricane Katrina. While President Bush was widely blamed for the federal response, it was - in truth - just as a much a failure of state and local government to respond. For starters, state and local governments are the agencies that order and carry out evacuations. The federal role is more of an aid response after the storm has hit. The storm response cost Governor Katherine Blanco (D-LA) her job. Surprisingly, Mayor Ray Nagin (D-New Orleans) was reelected, although he now faces trial on corruption charges related to his Katrina response. The storm hit in August of 2005, nine months after George W. Bush was reelected. Had it happened in August, 2004, he likely would have lost the election. Katrina remains part of all of their legacies, and not for the better.
“The Master of Disaster” – In August of 1992, Hurricane Andrew devastated much of South Florida. Not only did President H.W. Bush come to view the damage, but something unprecedented occurred. Democratic Presidential nominee Bill Clinton also showed up to tour the damage. The Clinton visit seemed a stretch, and smelled of political opportunism. Disaster response is the President’s job - not a political photo op (or so I thought). Clinton’s argument was, “Well, if I become President, the cleanup from Andrew will still be going on.” In hindsight, he was right. As Governor for twelve years of Arkansas – a state hit hard and often by tornados – Clinton knew the value of being a hands-on leader in a disaster. He even brought his Arkansas Emergency Management Director James Lee Witt to Washington to run FEMA. Clinton knew the politics of disaster response better than any other President I’ve ever seen.
“Don’t Waste a Crisis” – Rahm Emmanuel, a former White House advisor to Bill Clinton, was famous for saying, “You don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste; it’s an opportunity to do important things that you would otherwise avoid.” Emmanuel later went on to become a Congressman, President Obama’s Chief-of-Staff, and now Mayor of Chicago. While some may find his comments crass and cynical, they do have a practical political application. How you handle a crisis – whether it be a snowstorm or a hurricane – matters to the voting public. Plow the streets on time, and they’ll never forget you. But fail to get disaster aid, and they’ll never forgive you. Disaster time equals face time on TV in front of the public, too. It’s political prime time; but it is a two-edged sword, as Mayor Emanuel is finding out. His city faces a murder and gun violence crisis right now which is unprecedented. If he handles it well and violence subsides, he’ll get reelected. If he botches the disaster response, he’ll be a political footnote.
“Why This Matters” – I’ve been covering and analyzing politics for 35 years now, so I think I have some insight. The reason disaster response matters – aside from the public service part of it – is that it’s a chance to exhibit leadership. Look, for the most part, politics and public policy are a series of scripted speeches, appearances, events and votes. Anyone can plan a great speech, rally and photo op. But it is a real true test of leadership when the unplanned, unforeseen disaster occurs, and you have to throw out the playbook and respond with your gut. It is often the tipping point between political success and failure and can simply define one’s legacy. It’s a make-or-break moment. I thought about this a lot Friday night when I was chatting with Governor Lincoln Chafee (I-Rhode Island), as he responded to the blizzard from the Emergency Management Agency in Cranston, RI (photo above). His report card is yet to be written!
As always, your questions and comments are welcome. Just click the comment button at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com. A special thanks to the Rhode Island National Guard this week for lending us cots and a warm place to weather the storm!
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