Bill Whalen: Politi-Cal

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For Pete’s Sake, Mr. President, Take a Page from Wilson

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Part of the disaster facing Los Angeles 16 years ago

One of the biggest sins in a life post-government is regression. That is, giving in to the temptation to romanticize the past and assume that your old boss/office/administration, though it be long out of power, could better handle a present-day crisis.

I try to avoid this (publicly at least) when thinking about my days working for Pete Wilson when he was California’s 36th governor. But in watching President Obama’s Oval Office address Tuesday night, and two months into his mostly shaky handling of the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, I keep thinking of a past California disaster — the January 1994 Northridge Earthquake — and Wilson’s handling of the situation as a model for Obama and others to follow.

Unlike President Obama, Wilson was on top of the situation not days but hours after the quake — flying down from Sacramento setting up camp in L.A., and huddling with top advisors to come up with a plan and a course of action (granted, this is a luxury governors and not presidents can afford).

There was no prolonged deliberation or delegation, as seems the Obama style. No relying on Nobel recipients to come up with smart ideas. Just a lot of common sense applied to a common purpose.

Wilson also avoided a trap which this President hasn’t: getting sidetracked by big issues. Instead of pontificating about something larger and loftier — say, seismic retrofitting of buildings up and down California or smart-growth strategies along fault lines — Wilson kept the focus on the immediate task at hand.

Namely, getting the Southland up and running, asap.

And so began days and weeks of unmistakable gubernatorial action: suspending construction rules and red tape, setting up permit assistance centers, building weather shelters, cracking down on crooked contractors and suspending tax laws that unjustly punished owners of rebuilt homes.

The results: pretty impressive. The Santa Monica Freeway was re-opened in just 66 days,a full 74 days ahead of schedule. So too were sections of I-5 and the Simi Valley Freeway opened ahead of schedule.

I mention all of this neither to take a partisan swipe at President Obama or to excessively fawn over my old boss. The larger point would be that the BP oil spill underscores a weakness in this President’s make-up: a lack of executive experience, and a lack of familiarity with crisis management (other than Rev. Wright and healthcare reform).

In theory, this is why governors make such strong presidents, having faced disasters (natural and man-made) during their state Capitol years. They understand best how to react to a crisis — by being focused, hands-on and pro-active (though that kind of gubernatorial experience helped George W. Bush in the days after the 9/11 attack but not so much during the federal response to Hurricane Katrina).

Sadly, I believe this ties into a cancer affecting government at all levels, it seems: core competence.

Casey Stengel

A president who talks about energy policy, while the other half of the tv screen shows spewing oil, doesn’t exude confidence. Nor does the thought of task forces, blue-ribbon commissions, and big-brain group-think.

There’s nothing like a spinning wheel in a big puddle of oil.

Ronald Reagan used to joke that the most terrifying words in the English language were: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”.

A skeptical public, watching the oil slick spread and the well continue to go uncapped, may be echoing Casey Stengel’s lament:

“Can’t anybody here play this game”?


Written by Bill Whalen

June 17, 2010 at 11:05 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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