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 worn on their sleeves. I want straight reporting. If I want editorials, I’ll go to the editorial page or listen to some commentary on television. The American public is as interested in the facts as I am. They want the facts brought in a straightforward manner. It’s tough to do that in a 24/7 news cycle.
JA: Because there’s competition to be the first, to fill 24 hours with news. It’s repetitive. They’re always looking for different angles to bring to a story.
ES: Has the administration given the press enough of those facts you mentioned? Another criticism you hear is that the White House isn’t particularly forthcoming, that it’s even secretive, on certain subjects.
JA: I have never experienced that. In my tenure at FEMA, if there was something to be disclosed, the president would say, “All right, get it out there. Let the chips fall where they may.” I never witnessed a time when he wanted to hold back any information. Again, I go back to the press having to fill the news cycle. I hate the daily photo ops because I think they diminish the office of the presidency. The president should be available to answer questions when there’s something great or not so great to talk about, but when you run a person out there every day creating a photo op, it’s feeding the beast.
ES: Isn’t a lot of this image management for the White House’s own benefit? They put the president out there in front of a backdrop with the message of the day.
JA: That’s true. It’s a necessary evil in today’s environment. It’s grown over the years with [various] presidents, and I don’t like it.
ES: Back to Katrina. Did Mike Brown do a heck of a job?
JA: Oh, I don’t know. I think he did probably the best job he could given the circumstances he was faced with and the multitude of experts and bosses. Could they have done a better job? Sure. In hindsight, we all wish that the agency would do a better job.
ES: So was he scapegoated?
JA: Oh, absolutely. Without question.
ES: Why did he get forced out?
JA: I think the folks at DHS wanted him out of the way.
ES: If you had been running FEMA at the time, could you have done a better job?
JA: That’s an unfair comparison. I wouldn’t have been [running FEMA] if I hadn’t directly reported to the president.
ES: Is there anything you saw Mike Brown or Secretary Chertoff do that made you think, “I would have done that differently”?
JA: Of course. But I’m not comfortable talking about it. That would be me second-guessing those folks, which would be unfair to do because I wasn’t there.
ES: Has the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf after Rita proceeded at the pace that it needs to?
JA: No, absolutely not.
ES: What happened?
JA: I think there are too many parochial interests getting in the way of the global picture. Neither New Orleans nor the state of Louisiana has crafted a plan. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that the levees were going to fail. Everyone knew they were only built to [sustain] a category 3 [storm]. James Lee Witt had tried to engage New Orleans in an exercise [to test the city’s disaster preparedness]. I tried to engage New Orleans in an exercise. It was all blown off. City officials just weren’t interested.
ES: Whom do you blame? The mayor? The governor?
JA: Everyone has a piece of that pie. Citizens even have some responsibility. It’s too easy to hope that the state, local, and federal governments are going to solve every problem out there. That’s not realistic. We have to do a better job as individuals to be prepared for the unexpected. We haven’t done a very good job of it in this country.
In retrospect, the one thing I would have insisted on and hoped for would have been a closer communication between the governor and the mayor. Governor [Kathleen] Blanco invited me to Baton Rouge the Thursday after the storm, and I spent a couple of hours with her that evening. She was in the middle of the ultimate authority, responsible for everything. I urged her to get herself out of that situation and put the appropriate state person in charge so she could be looking at the more global issues, and yet she was doing the day-to-day battling. I think that was a mistake. Normally when these things take place, the state, local, and federal decision makers are in the same room, at the same table. When I went into the operations center, I didn’t see anything like that; everybody was in their own little cubicle.
ES: What did we in the press misunderstand about your role in New Orleans following the hurricane? The thrust of the criticism is that you were somehow profiting off of your prior relationships.
JA: I haven’t profited at all from any relationships. I had a client, [the] Shaw [Group], which happened to be headquartered in Baton Rouge. They’re a very large engineering construction firm, with 15,000 employees worldwide. I was on contract to help with two projects overseas, one in the U.K. and one in China.
ES: What does “help” mean?
JA: Business consulting.
ES: Based on your experience in government.
JA: It was unrelated. When I left FEMA, I made a conscious effort not to pigeonhole myself into disaster response and recovery. I went out with the idea of general business consulting, and it’s been successful thus far.
ES: Are you registered to lobby?
JA: [The Allbaugh Company] is registered to lobby. Everyone believes I’m a lobbyist, but I don’t lobby.
ES: So in the capacity with Shaw that you were referring to . . .
JA: I was offering strategic counsel on those two deals [when Katrina hit]. Someone said, rightly so, “Hey, we’ve got the former FEMA director on contract. Maybe we can ask him about designing our response team.” What they were trying to do, since they were kind of a hometown company, was to parallel their response and recovery efforts, their team, with what was going on at the state, local, and federal level. They had misdesigned their team, so I helped them remake it. That took a couple of weeks, and then I left town. Well, the press started talking about how I was getting contracts for Halliburton and KBR and Shaw.
ES: Halliburton and KBR didn’t have any role in the rebuilding of New Orleans?
JA: I think they did, but I didn’t have anything to do with it. Nobody ever asked me. That’s the beef I have with the press. They just wrote it and never asked me. I chewed out Chris Matthews one time because he said I was down in the Gulf getting contracts. I got a note back in from Chris that said, “Sorry, Joe, but I was just repeating what I read in the New York Times.” Well, pardon me. Doesn’t he have a responsibility to check the facts?
ES: The work you’ve done overseas for KBR has likewise been criticized.
JA: That’s not the way the world works! People think that George Bush calls federal agencies and says, “Give Joe a contract.” It’s not realistic.
ES: Can you understand why the press might say, “Joe Allbaugh has business in Iraq, so something bad must be going on”?
JA: I’m sure that’s what’s said. It’s that they don’t go the next step and say, “Well, let’s find out.”
ES: You think all this is about them taking a shot at the president.
JA: They take a shot at the president indirectly through me, which is fine. I’m a big guy. I can handle it. It just angers me that our professional journalists have accepted lower standards. I feel like Sergeant Friday: “Just the facts, ma’am.” We can make up our own damn minds.
ES: The president has been in trouble in the polls in the past year. Why do you think that is?
JA: It’s a constant drumbeat from those who aren’t the closest friends of the president to point out what happened with Katrina and Iraq. It takes a toll after a while.
ES: Even you would have to admit that a lot has happened: Katrina, Iraq, Harriet Miers, the investigation of Karl Rove, Scooter Libby.
JA: There’s another guy who’s getting screwed: Scooter Libby.
ES: Why is he getting screwed?
JA: The special prosecutor was out for X, and X was unachievable, but somehow he’s hanging his hat on Y. I think that’s where special prosecutors really get off track. Scooter is an honorable person. I’ve known him for a number of years. Like Mike Brown, he’s being scapegoated. I dislike it intensely.
ES: You don’t believe Scooter may have committed a crime?
JA: If he did commit a crime, then there’s a price to pay. I don’t know the facts, but I’ve seen a lot of rumor and innuendo. In the press you would think he was already tried and convicted. There’s no sense of fairness.
ES: In the previous administration, there were a number of these special-prosecutor investigations and attacks on people without anything backing them up.
JA: I agree. I think special prosecutors are very dangerous, and there have been just as many Democrats harmed by them as Republicans. I don’t like it one bit.
ES: There are people—and [Texas Monthly’s senior executive editor] Paul Burka is one of them—who have written that President Bush is someone they don’t recognize relative to the George Bush they knew as governor. Do you buy any of that?
JA: Oh, I can see where you can buy a part of it. But the responsibilities and the moving parts are so much greater being president than they were being governor of a large state. It’s mind-boggling. It’s hard for people to get their arms around everything that goes on in the president’s life on a daily basis. And expectations were high—popular governor, worked with Democrats. It’s extremely difficult when 535 people are trying to protect their parochial interests. And I’ve never seen so many talk about so much only to do so little; it’s very disappointing.
ES: Moving parts and all that, yes, but is the president personally different?
JA: I don’t see him as different. I see him as the same individual who still cares about the same issues, still has wide-open discussions among staff, still is a borderline policy wonk. No one ever talks about that.