Last September, Hurricane Katrina revealed a Bush administration studded through and through with hacks. These cronies exhibited the quality made infamous by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Michael Brown: a loyalty to party and president that could overcome the kinds of issues that would give lesser governments pause, such as insufficient experience or a sketchy diploma. A month after the storm, The New Republic drew up its list of the 15 biggest Bush hacks, introducing to the public the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) chief financial officer who had no background in finance and the Small Business Administration (SBA) head who ran out of money for loans.
A year has passed since we first met these titans of the hackocracy. Over the course of this short period, the TNR hacks have faced many challenges, from revelations of a mysterious illness to catastrophic computer trouble. But, even through adversity, they held true to the hack creed that had brought them so far already—try, come up short, make a phone call to an old college buddy, and try again. You learned their names, you loved their failings, you watched their flameouts. Where are they now? TNR follows up with some of its 15 original Bush hacks.
#14 ANDREW MANER
Chief Financial Officer, DHS Last year, Andrew Maner was running DHS’s $40 billion budget, despite his dearth of management experience. In March, Maner left his post to spend more time with his family after the personal sacrifice of government service got to be too much. (He later revealed to the Federal Times that he had sometimes thought about work during off time.) The trying times at DHS might have discouraged a lesser man from applying to further jobs for which he was underqualified. But Maner, undeterred, continues to aim high, as when he ran for a seat on the eleven-member board of Capitol City Little League this spring: “While I don’t know what qualifications are required or desired for the board, but [sic] I believe I possess several that could help: 1) A passion for the game of baseball, I myself play Ponce de Leon baseball for adults, and it remains a highlight of the week. 2) As the former Chief Financial Officer for the Department of Homeland Security, I possess numerous quantitative and qualitative skills that could assist the league. 3) We have 3 boys, 6, 3 and 1 that have started to go through the league and will be in it for several years.” Maner lost, as the parents judged him to lack relevant experience, despite his love of the game.
#11 PATRICK RHODE
Acting Deputy Director, FEMA
When we last checked in with Patrick Rhode—the TV anchor who became fema’s acting deputy director after a stint with President Bush’s 2000 campaign squad— he was calling the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina “probably one of the most efficient and effective responses in the country’s history.” Critics scoffed at Rhode’s characterization, but we now know, thanks to some e- mails unearthed by the press this year, that Rhode had things under control. At 6:21 a.m. the day Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, fema head Michael Brown had told his deputy that he was preparing for an interview. “Yea, sitting in the chair, putting mousse in my hair,” Brown wrote. “Me too!” Rhode replied. Coordinated response? Check! Sadly, fema lost Rhode and his formidable experience with hair product in January, when he returned to private life. A fema spokesperson declined to say why he had departed.
#6 HECTOR BARRETO
A year ago, Hector Barreto was struggling to process Katrina-related small-business loans. A month after the hurricane hit, his agency had approved just 76 of the 12,000 applications filed. Today, the SBA’s future looks bright— largely because Barreto has found employment elsewhere. But he does deserve an A for effort: At the height of the loan backlog, an SBA press release announced that “employees are working 12 to 14 hours seven days a week”—which is, unfortunately, illegal. But even the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory’s labor standards weren’t enough to get the loans off the ground. By March, the agency had approved $6 billion in loans—but had distributed only $450 million. Thankfully, this dismal number might not be accurate, since Barreto has a reputation for misrepresenting SBA figures. A 2003 General Accounting Office investigation found that he had inflated small-business statistics by billions of dollars. (Nine additional federal investigations completed a portrait of Barreto’s SBA as an orgy of fraud, waste, and rampant mismanagement.) It’s no surprise that a 2005 study of morale at 30 federal agencies ranked the SBA dead last. It’s also no surprise that, this April, Barreto resigned in disgrace. He now heads up The Latino Coalition, which has been described as a “small and obscure Hispanic lobbying group.”
#4 JIM NICHOLSON
Secretary for Veterans Affairs
After drastically underestimating the number of veterans who would need medical care in 2005, former Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson tackled 2006 with gusto. With the veteran population aging rapidly, Nicholson had the dubious honor of presiding over what he called the biggest graveyard expansion “since the Civil War.” Then there were the Wiccans. This May, Nicholson’s agency found itself entangled in controversy over its decision to forbid a Nevada widow from placing a Wiccan pentacle on her slain husband’s memorial plaque. Veterans Affairs (VA), which recognizes 38 other emblems of faith—including the “Humanist Emblem of Spirit”—now faces litigation from numerous Wiccan families. And then, this spring, a VA analyst’s laptop—which contained the personal information of 26.5 million veterans—was stolen. But we can’t fault Nicholson for the ensuing mess, since no one in his office bothered to tell him about it until two weeks after it happened. Some might ask why Nicholson didn’t do more to improve the department’s “F” rating for computer security, which it received in four out of the last five years. But at least one fan doesn’t mind: As Press Secretary Tony Snow put it, Bush still has “full faith and confidence” in the VA chief.
#2 JOHN PENNINGTON
Director, Region Ten, FEMA
Like his FEMA colleague Patrick Rhode, Pennington has shown notable skill at taking a circumstance that makes him look weaselly and insisting that he actually handled it like a star. In the wake of Katrina, a Washington State Republican operative revealed that Pennington had suffered during his days in the state House from an obscure disease called ankylosing spondylitis. This unfortunate illness kept him from standing or sitting for more than a half hour and had mysteriously struck when the House was up for important votes in which Pennington would have been a tiebreaker—and when he wanted to take a European vacation. Pennington bravely penned a press release comparing himself to Franklin D. Roosevelt to justify the vacation. This summer, Pennington left his position as a regional fema director for a new job that posed similar challenges, but on the micro level: Washington State’s Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management director. He received this massive demotion through cronyism, too: He was appointed by an old friend from the state legislature, now a Snohomish County executive.
#1 HARRIET MIERS
White House Counsel
When preparing our guide to the Bush hackocracy last year, we struggled to decide which of the hacks should take the number-one spot. Many we profiled were deserving. But then, suddenly, Bush nominated former Texas Lottery Commission Chair Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, and our work was done. Miers’s croniness quotient was so high—and the post to which she was nominated so important—that Republicans and Democrats alike called her unqualified; the senators tasked with reading her Judiciary Committee questionnaire judged it “inadequate” and “insulting”; and so on. Faced with such ridicule, a lesser hack might resign from government in a huff. But certain strengths of spirit particular to the Bush administration allowed her to emerge unscathed from her ordeal: an ability to forge ahead after experiencing criticism and a capacity to believe that, while things may have looked bad, they were actually good. When Miers withdrew her nomination on October 27, she went back to work as White House counsel that very afternoon. Three days later, she helped prepare the nomination of her more experienced successor, Samuel Alito, to the Court, generously advising him to skip the eyeliner that had lost her key support. And, in April, she told Time that much of the nomination process was actually “very enriching and very enjoyable”—like receiving letters from childhood friends who’d noticed she’d become famous.
Free Nathan Hecht!
We’ve long known that what’s lawful in Texas is not synonymous with what is right. But, this fall, the Lone Star State outdoes itself: In Fort Worth, Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht is being persecuted for answering the call to defend a hack in need. While Harriet Miers stood for the Supreme Court nomination last fall, Hecht—the judge who occasionally dated Miers and finally called things off at a Denny’s—gave at least 120 interviews on her behalf, including, at the request of Karl Rove, a call to James Dobson assuring him that she was pro-life based on their experiences together in a born-again church. As thanks for his service, in May, the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct slapped Hecht with a reprimand for violating judicial conduct and abusing his position of power. Hecht appealed the punishment in a two-day hearing in August.
Hecht is an award-winning, Yale-educated champion of justice; an amateur philosopher; and an organ player. There is no better demonstration of his awesome prowess in the courtroom than his August appellate hearing: While the Commission made do with a San Antonio lawyer who was paid $1 for his work, Hecht retained Chip Babcock, a moderately famous First Amendment attorney who himself retained several associates to haul boxes of evidence in and out of the courtroom. Babcock emphasized Hecht’s role as an American free speech hero, arguing about his defense of Miers, “That’s what we do in this country. We have battles over ideas, and we don’t muzzle the most important speakers.” Hecht’s hearing also revealed new evidence that confirms his innocence: Texas Appellate Judge Elizabeth Lang-Miers, Harriet Miers’s sister-in-law, also defended the nominee while she was under scrutiny, affirming character attributes of great importance to the American people, including that Miers makes a delicious sweet potato pie. Lang-Miers was not punished for her actions. In a moment that proved his fairness and incorruptibility, Hecht averred on the stand that Harriet’s pie is not actually very good.
The verdict in Hecht’s appeal will be released on October 23 in an unprecedented courtroom hearing in Fort Worth. Hecht’s fight for his appeal has won the support of thousands around the country, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, Senator Arlen Specter, and state District Judge James Parsons III of Palestine, Texas. Check www.free-nathanhecht.com to learn what you can do to help!
It’s hard out there for a hack. Seems like just yesterday that, if you had the right college roommate or shared the right cab, you were guaranteed a Cabinet-level position or, at the very least, a spot on the Supreme Court. No longer. The tyranny of merit reached new heights in late September, when, in a blatant attack on uberhack and former FEMA head Michael Brown, Congress passed a Homeland Security bill limiting the president’s future FEMA choices to only those individuals with a “demonstrated ability in and knowledge of emergency management.”
Fortunately, Bush—himself no slouch in the hack department—has come to the defense of FEMA’s hacks. Earlier this month, Bush signed the Homeland Security bill but, in a brilliant stroke of misdirection, immediately issued a signing statement asserting his right to ignore the appointment provision; it would, he claimed, impede his ability to nominate the person “best qualified by experience and knowledge to fill the office.” Thanks to the president, no longer will someone be held back just because he or she doesn’t know the difference between a tropical storm and a hurricane.
This article originally ran in the October 30, 2006 issue of the magazine.