So far, Bush deserves only scorn for his "handling" of Katrina.
The first reports on levee breaks in New Orleans starting moving across the
wire services just after dawn on Tuesday, August 30. Radio and television were
reporting the same: “The levees in New Orleans have been breached,”
said National Public Radio’s Melissa Block that same morning. The potential
for catastrophe was clear enough, early on Tuesday morning, that NPR reporter
David Kestenbaum asked a Louisiana State University expert, “Think we’re
ever going to have to give up on New Orleans?”
By early afternoon Eastern time, the scope of the tragedy was evident, with
images of New Orleans under water dominating every cable channel.
I don’t know about you, but if I were president, or if I were advising
one, I’d have said to my colleagues: “We stop everything we’re
doing right now. We go back to Washington, at the very least; ideally, we head
down to the area -- if not New Orleans, then certainly to Baton Rouge, to meet
with the governor and greet some evacuees. One of the country’s half-dozen
greatest cities is dying.”
Instead, Bush was in sunny San Diego, having just left sunny El Mirage, Arizona.
In El Mirage, he gave a speech to group of senior citizens, trying to persuade
them to sign up for his prescription-drug benefit -- which was passed in 2003,
as you’ll recall, only after House Republican leaders kept the floor open
for three extra hours to twist the arms of enough GOP members to switch their
votes, and which, speaking of mirages, covers only the first $2,250 of a person’s
drug costs, after which they pay 100 percent of the next $2,850 out of their
The president then took time to help his now-close buddy Senator John McCain
celebrate his 69th birthday, sharing a piece of birthday cake on the Tarmac.
They posed for happy pictures as Katrina was smashing into the Gulf Coast with
a force never before seen from a hurricane in the nation’s history.
In San Diego -- after the levees were breached -- Bush stayed to schedule,
delivering yet one more tired propaganda speech about Iraq. But this time, he
had the temerity to compare the Iraq War to World War II, as he was celebrating
the 60th anniversary of America’s victory over Japan (which surrendered
not on August 30 but on August 15; but with this president, who’s counting?).
“As we mark this anniversary, we are again a nation at war,” Bush
told his Naval-base crowd, as if a war of choice peddled to the American public
on trumped-up and outright false allegations were the same thing morally as
a war in which America was attacked and then obligated to lead the fight against
three powerful nations (OK, Italy; two and two-thirds), which it undertook in
concert with its major allies.
And, yes, he had the nerve to meld Pearl Harbor and September 11, which are
similar in some obvious respects, except in the sense Bush means -- that is,
after Pearl Harbor, we responded by making war against the country that actually
launched the attack on us. Imagine that!
By the time Bush finished that speech, one of America’s greatest urban
treasures, one of the unique cities of the world, was mostly submerged. And
towns and small cities in Mississippi were leveled, just gone. And yet the president
steered clear of either Washington or the affected area for yet one more night,
Finally, he still spent part of the next morning, Wednesday, at the Crawford
ranch before Air Force One finally lifted off and took his to survey the damage
-- from the air.
On one level, all this is “just” symbolism. But real leaders understand
symbolism. They give speeches that are appropriate to the moment, dramatically
unlike Bush’s ghastly performance on the White House lawn yesterday. He
spoke as if it were September 13, 2001; as if the nation were still desperate
to be united behind its leadership; as if saving New Orleans were simply a matter
of resolve and guts; as if the catastrophe that is the war had never happened,
and he still had credibility in the eyes of a majority of Americans; as if Mother
Nature, abetted by the global warming that he denies, were another group of
evildoers who could be brought to heel with tough words and a return volley
And on top of all this symbolism, there is substance, laid out in stunning
detail by Sidney Blumenthal on Salon on August 29. “In 2004,” Blumenthal
wrote, “the Bush administration cut funding requested by the New Orleans
district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for holding back the waters of
Lake Pontchartrain by more than 80 percent.” That was one of about eight
amazing pieces of information. It will be fascinating to monitor how aggressively
the major media follow this story over the coming days.
Like everyone else, I hope now that the administration plays furious catch-up
and does everything it can to help the recovery and eventual rebuilding. But
the first days of a crisis are a test. Bush has already failed it. Current and
future New Orleanians will ask, as Ted Kennedy famously did of his father in
1988: Where was George?