Washington However hapless he appeared at the congressional hearing Tuesday on Hurricane Katrina, former Federal Emergency Management Agency head Michael Brown was right about one thing.
The failure to respond to that disaster exposed one of the few real structural weaknesses in our Constitution: a mechanism to coordinate the work of local, state and national governments.
The federal system of divided power and responsibility is one of the glories of the Founders' work, a scheme that has helped preserve individual liberty and the flexibility needed to run a continent-sized nation.
But when a task requires those separate governments to work together, there is no ready forum in which they can meet.
This is a problem that urgently requires presidential attention. Before the United States spends $60 billion, or $200 billion, or whatever the final bill may be, there needs to be a coordinated federal response - not a dictated Washington plan.
President Bush wisely has rejected calls to appoint a Washington czar to issue orders to Gulf Coast officials. But he has yet to enlist the ideas of the people who could make this a new model of federal-state-local cooperation. Instead of repeating his flying photo-ops to the region, he ought to be on the phone inviting people to a summit on how to fill this gap in our constitutional structure.
Who to invite? Because the president is more comfortable with fellow Republicans, I'd start with someone he knows well, a member of his own Cabinet: Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt. As governor of Utah and chairman of the National Governors Assn., Leavitt was probably the most creative thinker on federalism issues among a talented cohort of state executives.
Next, another man he knows well, former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Before he entered government, Powell founded America's Promise, the largest consortium of faith-based and secular non-profit and private organizations working on urban and human service problems. Those groups have a vital role to play in rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
Then, Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, unique in his background as mayor of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County commissioner, state legislator and governor. When I talked to Voinovich this week, he said the president should be in touch with all the organizations representing local and state governments. Like the others, he's yet to hear from the White House.
As it happens, the president could reach all those groups through another Republican, Rep. Michael Turner of Ohio, the head of the House speaker's urban working group. Turner, the former mayor of Dayton, and his colleagues have enlisted a strong advisory panel, including National Urban League president and former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, and have established liaison on a bipartisan basis with all the major organizations, public and private, with a stake in housing and economic development.
But Turner, like the others, has heard nothing yet from the White House. Last Friday, a presidential aide made a conference call to 220 groups, briefing them for an hour and answering questions about the response to Katrina and the preparations for Rita. But participants said there was little opportunity - or appetite - for them to offer ideas.
If the president were smart, he'd invite Jack Kemp, who is on Turner's advisory panel, and two other dynamic former housing and urban development secretaries, Carla Hills and Henry Cisneros, to brainstorm with him.
He should include Dick Moe, the head of the National Trust for Historical Preservation, who could remind him of the contributions that the craftsmen of New Orleans - plasterers, ironworkers and the rest - can make to refurbishing their city.
If Bush wanted to make this effort really bipartisan, he could also usefully tap the minds of Harry McPherson, the wise old man of Lyndon Johnson's domestic staff, and his new law partner Dick Gephardt, who before he came to Congress was an energetic and imaginative alderman in New Orleans' sister city on the Mississippi, St. Louis.
Bush definitely should call former Gov. William Winter of Mississippi, now head of the University of Mississippi's Institute for Racial Reconciliation. If Bush is serious about tackling the problems of race and poverty, a repository of knowledge awaits him there, and Winter is eager to help.
And, finally, he should call William H. Gray III, the Philadelphia preacher and former congressman who for years headed the United Negro College Fund - the group whose slogan, famously mangled by Dan Quayle, could well be paraphrased as advice to this president: These minds are a terrible thing to waste.