WASHINGTON — Think New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose competence in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy helped raise his profile outside his state.
Recall former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who became an icon of resolve and resilience in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Or contrast patriotic images of President George W. Bush in the rubble of the World Trade Centers after 9/11 with the backlash over his flubbed response to Hurricane Katrina four years later.
A high-profile emergency response can make or break political fortunes.
For Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, the glare of the national spotlight on the racial turmoil in Ferguson hasn’t been flattering.
The fatal shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by a white policeman in the suburb of St. Louis _ and the violent unrest that followed _ has concentrated the country’s gaze on Nixon and Missouri’s other public officials.
Ferguson quickly became a testing ground for the state’s politicians: a place where deftly navigating hazards earns praise, but where a false step could cripple a career.
Even as Nixon struggled to tamp down the crisis, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Attorney General Chris Koster and others have manuevered in ways that will test their influence and could later direct the path of their ambitions.
And yet is it even reasonable to expect a politician’s presence to bring peace, particularly when the violence springs out of generations of frustration with police, with the economy, with the establishment those politicians represent?
“Everybody was taken off-guard by the event,” said George Connor, political science professor at Missouri State University. “How this all happened so quickly was beyond the comprehension of almost everyone involved in the situation.”
Nixon had the most to lose. His reviews weren’t promising.
A moderate two-term Democratic governor in a red-leaning state, Nixon has been mentioned as a longshot 2016 presidential hopeful, a possible vice presidential pick or maybe lower level member of a Hillary Clinton cabinet.
Speculation about his ambitions were stoked by a trip last month to Iowa, the state that hosts the first presidential caucuses.
Ferguson, for good or ill, introduced him to the nation.
Nixon rose to the occasion during a disaster before, when a lethal tornado hit Joplin, Mo., in 2011. His able management of the city’s recovery boosted his bid for a second term.
His response to events in Ferguson, however, has drawn heavy criticism — even from fellow Democrats — for being slow and awkward.
Nixon showed up in Ferguson five days after the shooting, after he’d been savaged on social media for his absence.
Missouri State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a black Democrat, tweeted profanity-laced criticisms at Nixon, calling him a coward for not coming to Ferguson sooner.
Time magazine dismissed him as tone deaf. The Washington Post published a profile that described him as fighting for his political life. Politico declared that he had “missed his moment.”
It didn’t help that Nixon already had a fraught relationship with Missouri’s black community because of his role in ending a court-ordered school desegregation program as state attorney general.
And Nixon didn’t make the best impression on live television. His first remarks on the crisis to be broadcast live nationwide, during a meeting with community leaders at a church on Aug. 14, were informal and uncomfortably jokey. During the news conference that followed, Nixon’s rambling presentation didn’t do much to redeem him.
Clinton Adams, a lawyer and black activist in Kansas City, called Nixon’s performance “woefully inadequate.”
“He was slow to respond initially. And when he did get to the area, he wasn't fully engaged,” Adams said. “There’s no way anybody is going to touch him for a national ticket or give him a cabinet post.”
One of Nixon’s only good moves was putting Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald Johnson in charge of security in Ferguson, said Jim Bergfalk, Kansas City-based political and communications consultant.
Johnson “has done as good of a job as anyone could do,” Bergfalk said. “But the governor injecting himself, with an on- and off-again curfew, on- and off-again National Guard, property rights as opposed to people rights, I think was a mistake.”
Fewer Democrats were willing to publicly criticize Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster for his own delayed reaction to the crisis, in part because he had less power than Nixon.
Some Democrats said the perception of the state’s poor response in Ferguson might hurt Koster’s 2016 campaign for governor. As a result, talk continues in Missouri Democratic party circles that McCaskill could be drafted to seek the job, particularly if Koster can be persuaded to step aside in 2016.
That appears unlikely.
If any politician comes out a winner in Ferguson, it’s McCaskill.
The former Jackson County prosecutor was a highly visible presence in Ferguson long before the governor’s arrival, talking with residents and leaders, visiting businesses and hugging protestors. She gave impassioned interviews and fired out statements and tweets calling for police to “demilitarize.” She called the president, Attorney General Eric Holder, law enforcement officials, and her Congressional colleagues. On Thursday, she announced plans to chair a hearing on police violence in Washington.
Although McCaskill‘s image during the crisis was undeniably more positive _ maybe even gubernatorial _ her headline-grabbing efforts also could be interpreted as opportunistic.
Asked for her assessment of how Nixon was doing, the senator declined to pile on.
“This would be a terrible time to be critical of anyone who has that job,” McCaskill said in an interview. “What we all need to focus on right now is how much we want him to succeed.”
Nixon’s spokesman, Scott Holste, dismissed the idea that Nixon was sluggish or bumbling, saying that the governor “has been working around the clock” to balance the protection of protestors’ rights with the safety of the community.
Holste said Nixon called for an independent investigation by the Department of Justice on Aug. 11 — just two days after the shooting — and met with Michael Brown’s mother on Aug. 15. The governor continues to meet with faith and community leaders in Ferguson and north St. Louis County, he said.
“The Governor has been laser-focused on bringing peace to the people of Ferguson, so that justice can be ultimately achieved. He most decidedly has not been focused on perception or politics,” Holste said in a written statement.
To be fair, it isn’t clear how much politicians can do to control a fast-moving crisis like the riots that roiled Ferguson.
Nixon probably took immediate action behind the scenes, but the disconnect between the local level and the state level can be very difficult for an elected official to overcome, said Bob Holden, a former Missouri governor.
Holden isn’t critical of Nixon.
“Too many people are playing the politics,” he said. “We all share some responsibility. The real disconnect — and the African American community has some responsibility here — is that disconnect between citizens and their elected officials, period.”
But there is some evidence that politicians can defuse potentially violent confrontations, through a combination of appropriate rhetoric and community credibility.
In 1992, Kansas Citians held a rally following the acquittal of white police officers in the beating of Rodney King. At one point, a young African American speaker suggested protesting the verdict on the Plaza, an upscale shopping district in Kansas City.
Emanuel Cleaver, then the mayor and now a congressman, was quick to respond.
“We aren’t going to the Plaza,” he told the crowd. “We aren’t going anywhere talking about violence … The people dying in Los Angeles are not white folks. They are African-American. Let’s not be stupid.”
The city largely escaped the violence that plagued other urban areas, and many observers credited Cleaver — who is black — for his calming influence at the rally.
“Anything that you do successfully is probably by error, you just lucked up and did it,” Cleaver said on MSNBC this week. “There is no book written on what you do or what you say. I think we put enormous pressure on anyone if we create the atmosphere that if this person comes to town everything is going to be okay.”