For years, it seemed “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job!” would stand as the most clueless and horrifying presidential hurricane quote in national history.
The comment was so unparalleled and its infamy so unassailable because for it to happen, the cataclysmic Hurricane Katrina and the perfect storm of genial incompetence that were President George W. Bush and his gang had to intersect precisely.
“Brownie” was Michael Brown, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under Bush, and the man in charge of responding to Katrina in 2005. Brown’s qualifications for the position were highlighted by a stint as an assistant to the city manager of Edmond, Oklahoma, while in college. But Brown’s best-known accomplishment before FEMA came in his role as the judges and stewards commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association.
So there was that.
It was on Sept. 2, 2005, four days after Katrina hit, that Bush complimented Brown on FEMA’s work in Louisiana. In truth, the hurricane and the inadequate response by the federal government were followed by more than 1,800 deaths. Brown, it turned out, did not even know that thousands of people, promised buses that never showed up, were massing in the city’s convention center, though anyone watching televised news did. They were stuck there without food, water or aid for days while bodies lay outside.
But to believe “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job!” could not be beaten is to underestimate President Donald Trump, who always promises to outdo anyone at anything. In fact, that was exactly the point he was making in this Sunday tweet that became the new champ:
“Nobody could have done what I’ve done for #PuertoRico with so little appreciation. So much work!”
To Trump, Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico, is about him. Not the Red Cross, local volunteers, the National Guard nor members of the military working around the clock to make a difference. Not the everyday folks finding courage in the middle of despair. Not the bereaved mourning 43 dead at last count. Just him.
So is “Brownie” in second place now? Not even close.
This Trump comment while in Puerto Rico last week — “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack” — is far more bigly than Bush’s faux pas, not least because Trump did not make similar comments about hurricanes in Texas or Florida.
Other Trump comments on Puerto Rico also beat out “Brownie,” like this three-tweet message:
“The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump . . . Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They . . . want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.”
And this Trump tweet from Sept. 30 might be the most obtuse: “To the people of Puerto Rico: Do not believe the #FakeNews! #PRStrong.”
Mr. President, they aren’t watching news, or reading it. About 85 percent of Puerto Ricans still have no power three weeks after Maria hit. Internet and cell service are rare. There are drastic shortages of water, food and other necessities.
As bad as “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job!” was, it never occurred to us how much worse it would have been if the president, after Katrina, proclaimed on national TV, “Bush, you’re doing a heck of a job!”
Now we know.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.