Public Image Spotlighted in Aides’ E-Mails

Times Staff Writer

Aides to Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco fretted about her public image in the days following Hurricane Katrina, with one worrying that she looked more like a “first lady” than a “John Wayne” in responding to the storm, according to e-mails released Monday.

The electronic communications were made available by a House investigative committee two days before Blanco was scheduled to appear before the panel to testify about her state’s much-criticized preparation for and response to one of the nation’s worst natural disasters.

A committee spokesman said the e-mails demonstrated a preoccupation with image and political concerns as the state struggled to help stranded storm victims; in one e-mail, Blanco’s assistant chief of staff expressed concern about the large number of blacks being evacuated out of state, saying that move would create a perception problem.


The e-mails also underscore the partisan battle over blame that has raged in Washington since the hurricane flooded parts of New Orleans and wrecked large swaths of the Gulf Coast. The fight is intensifying as House and Senate committees looking into the response to the hurricane prepare to issue final reports in February.

So far, documents gathered by those two panels -- one led by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), the other by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) -- have indicated that fault lies with all levels of government.

Democrats, however, have focused on the failures of the Bush administration, especially former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown, who lost his job over his handling of the crisis. Republicans have said the primary fault lies with Democratic state and local officials in Louisiana.

The political stakes in the argument are high for President Bush. Heavy criticism of the administration’s initial hurricane relief efforts helped push Bush’s opinion poll ratings to the lowest levels of his presidency, as voters questioned his strength of leadership.

David Marin, Davis’ press secretary and committee spokesman, acknowledged that the House panel had culled the e-mails from hundreds of thousands of documents.

He said the committee thought it was important to show that Brown, the former FEMA director, was not the only official concerned with media image after the hurricane.

E-mails previously released by the House and Senate committees portrayed Brown as preoccupied with his wardrobe and other cosmetic concerns in the midst of the crisis.

“What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander,” Marin said. “One thing we’ve seen across all levels of government is that there was a failure of leadership. Part of leadership is establishing priorities. A number of top officials misplaced their priorities right after the storm.”

The analysis of the e-mails to and from Blanco’s staff, Marin said, showed that “way too much time was spent on spin by the governor’s top aides.”

An e-mail sent Sept. 4 by Blanco’s press secretary, Denise Bottcher, to the governor’s communications director, said: “I’m now a bit concerned that we’re doing too many ‘first lady’ things and not enough John Wayne. Women are easily portrayed as weak, which [Blanco] has had a hard time overcoming. I will say again ... men cry -- compassion; women cry -- weak.”

Blanco aides also were concerned with FEMA’s out-of-state evacuation of large numbers of black Louisianans.

“I think that we should make every effort to keep as many of our evacuees in state as possible,” wrote Johnny Anderson, Blanco’s assistant chief of staff.

“You send that many black folks out of state, we will have a perception problem,” Anderson wrote. “Word is already that we are only sending blacks out of this state. We are [making] a strategic error. FEMA will not have to answer the people, we will.”

Kim Hunter Reed, Blanco’s deputy chief of staff, said Monday that Anderson was reporting concerns expressed to him by Louisiana state legislators that it might appear the state was sending mostly black residents out of state.

“His e-mail and many others from senior staff reflect a straightforward conversation about their concerns and the sharing of their views” in communications they never expected would be made public, Reed said.

She also noted that Blanco released hundreds of thousands of documents this month that detailed efforts by state officials to cope with the disaster.

“Those documents include thousands of calls for search and rescue, the confiscating of Louisiana school buses to move people to safety and also the work of the National Guard and Wildlife and Fisheries, who were in the waters in gale-force winds moving citizens as quickly as they could out of harm’s way,” Reed said.

The e-mails disseminated Monday include advice from public relations consultants to the governor’s aides.

“Please put [Blanco] in casual clothes, a baseball cap, etc.... she needs to visit a shelter in prime time and talk tough, but hug some folks and be sensitive,” consultant Liz Mangham of the Southern Strategy Group of Louisiana messaged Blanco’s media office Sept. 2. The hurricane hit Aug. 29.

“She looks tired, but too comfy in her suit,” Mangham said. “Please put the secretaries in caps and jeans....I don’t care if they are in the field or not ... they should look like they are.”

Mangham, in an e-mail response to a query, said that her advice had been unsolicited.

Kim Fuller, a media specialist with James Witt & Associates, a consulting firm Blanco has retained to bolster Louisiana’s response to the hurricane, said she had simply done her job when she e-mailed advice to Blanco’s staff.

“Gov. Blanco reminds me of the classy Elizabeth Dole,” a Republican senator from North Carolina, and that was not good, given the circumstances, Fuller wrote Sept. 4. “Gov. Blanco might dress down a bit and look like she has rolled up her sleeves. I have some great Liz Claiborne sports clothes that look kind of Eddie Bauer, but with class, but would bring her down to [the] level of getting to work.”

Fuller suggested that as Blanco accompanied Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on an inspection of relief efforts, she might consider “doing something ‘physical’.... Maybe if she is with the troops she can put a few bags of ice in the hands of the citizens who need it. Make sure she is not wearing a suit, and make sure she has rough-looking shoes.”

Fuller said Monday her e-mails “were unsolicited by the governor’s office. They didn’t ask me for advice on her fashion.”

In another dispute stemming from the congressional investigations, House Democrats are demanding that their chamber’s committee subpoena documents the White House has refused to hand over on its response to the hurricane. Davis has said he might issue a subpoena as early as Wednesday if the White House does not give his panel e-mails written by Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and other senior officials.