Evan Smith: You’re notoriously press shy. You didn’t give a lot of interviews while you were in the public sector, and certainly not since leaving your last government post.
Joe Allbaugh: That wasn’t my job. I wasn’t hired to be a press person. If they were going to hire a press person, it would have been someone a hell of a lot prettier than me. Most times there was no reason to step forward. There are a lot of people in the world who are talkers and a lot of people who are doers; I consider myself a doer based on what I’ve done in my professional life and the way I was reared on a farm in north-central Oklahoma. Every morning you got up, itemized the chores to be done, and got after it until the sun went down.
ES: That’s a reasonably neutral answer—in other words, it’s not one that reveals any hostility toward the press.
JA: I’m always leery of the press because we’ve reached a point in America where professional journalism has slipped a notch or two. The work that goes into good journalism is hard, and yet so many people take the easy path out, citing other articles instead of doing their own research, or Wikipedia, which is 99 percent wrong. I mean, my bio on Wikipedia is trash.
ES: Take the opportunity to correct some of the stuff the press has gotten wrong over the years. I know, for instance, that you have an issue with the story about your being roommates with [former FEMA director] Michael Brown in college.
JA: That’s probably the biggest urban legend. We never went to school together. We went to different schools and graduated four years apart.
ES: You did know each other previously, though.
JA: We had met [in Oklahoma] in the late seventies or early eighties. He was working for the city of Edmond. He went to law school at Oklahoma City University and was a good attorney. That’s why I hired him to be general counsel at FEMA. I had no idea he would end up as the director. It was a tough job to do. I think he was really given short shrift by 285 million Americans.
ES: Make the case, because he’s a punch line at this point.
JA: He became a [means] through which everybody could wash their sins away for all the mistakes that were made leading up to and after Katrina. FEMA had been walking a very fine line for a number of years, even during my two years and thirteen days [as director]. But we had great professionals who made it work in spite of shortcomings that in some cases were created by events that took place or Congress not funding various programs properly. My job was to lead the organization and to change it somewhat, particularly after 9/11, and we did that successfully. But I had made the decision that if FEMA was going to go into [the Department of] Homeland Security, it was not a place where I wanted to go. I had made the necessary disclosures: Do not put FEMA in DHS for X, Y, Z reasons.
ES: What were X, Y, Z reasons?
JA: Number one, in a time of natural or man-made disasters, if the person in charge of responding and recovering does not have direct dialogue with the president of the United States, things are going to fall through the cracks. I worked directly for the president. [My predecessor] James Lee Witt worked directly for Bill Clinton. Mike had four or five layers of bureaucracy on top of him. He no longer had direct contact with the president.
ES: Why else?
JA: Individual citizens need to know who is in charge. Remember back to Katrina: Every day there was a general or an admiral or someone in the administration claiming, “I’m in charge. I’m going to fix this.” When people’s lives are at stake, there ultimately needs to be one person accountable.
ES: Who was responsible for the parade of people being put in charge? Do you fault the White House?
JA: Not necessarily. Everybody had ownership of the failings of FEMA during Hurricane Katrina. You can’t put it all on one person. It’s just too big, with too many moving parts. Congress has some responsibility; it passed the bill that shoved FEMA under DHS. DHS is so big now and has so many missions it is difficult to accomplish them all.
ES: What’s your impression of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff?
JA: My impression is he doesn’t listen enough. Leadership is the willingness to make tough decisions when they’re not popular but also to have the wherewithal to listen to other opinions if necessary; ultimately you have to make the decision, but you have to be a damn good listener. That’s one of the things I’ve always appreciated about George Bush: He’s a fabulous listener. He would hear all types of dissenting opinions, but at the end of the day he would make the decision.
ES: The perception of the president, bordering on caricature, is something quite different from what you just described. People say he doesn’t listen to dissenting opinions, that he’s not open to hearing the other side.
JA: That is so far from the truth I know firsthand. I spent nine years of my life with this guy. I like to think I know him very well. Anyone who is the president of the United States cannot be successful unless he listens to opinions inside and outside the office.
ES: Who do you think is responsible for that image being perpetuated?
JA: The media likes to paint a picture and then do all they can to have that picture come to life for the American public. The American public is extremely smart. They know that President Bush isn’t the way the press portrays him. The media is extremely liberal in this country, and they allow their feelings to be