A pair of new opinion pieces along this line stand out for their insights, trenchancy, and--not incidentally--cleverness.
The first comes from Keith Olbermann, host of MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann, one of the most watchable evening TV newscasts around. Interrupting last night’s delivery of news both essential and outlandish, Olbermann sunk his incisors deep into the skinny ass of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who during a press conference two days prior, had referred to Louisiana as “a city that is largely underwater.” “If ever a slip-of-the-tongue defined a government’s response to a crisis,” the host remarked, “this was it.” Olbermann went on to scold politicians who feign sympathy with the victims of any tragedy, yet fail to take the steps or spend the money necessary to protect the American people:
No one is suggesting that mayors or governors in the afflicted areas, nor the federal government, should be able to stop hurricanes. Lord knows, no one is suggesting that we should ever prioritize levee improvement for a below-sea-level city, ahead of $454 million worth of trophy bridges for the politicians of Alaska.
But, nationally, these are leaders who won re-election last year largely by portraying their opponents as incapable of keeping the country safe. These are leaders who regularly pressure the news media in this country to report the reopening of a school or a power station in Iraq, and defies its citizens not to stand up and cheer. Yet they couldn’t even keep one school or power station from being devastated by infrastructure collapse in New Orleans--even though the government had heard all the “chatter” from the scientists and city planners and hurricane centers and some group whose purposes the government couldn’t quite discern ... a group called the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
And most chillingly of all, this is the Law and Order and Terror government. It promised protection--or at least amelioration--against all threats: conventional, radiological, or biological.
It has just proved that it cannot save its citizens from a biological weapon called standing water.
Mr. Bush has now twice insisted that “we are not satisfied,” with the response to the manifold tragedies along the Gulf Coast. I wonder which “we” he thinks he’s speaking for on this point. Perhaps it’s the administration, although we still don’t know where some of them are. Anybody seen the Vice President lately? The man whose message this time last year was, ‘I’ll Protect You, The Other Guy Will Let You Die’?
I don’t know which “we” Mr. Bush meant.
For many of this country’s citizens, the mantra has been--as we were taught in Social Studies it should always be--whether or not I voted for this President--he is still my President. I suspect anybody who had to give him that benefit of the doubt stopped doing so last week. I suspect a lot of his supporters, looking ahead to ’08, are wondering how they can distance themselves from the two words which will define his government--our government--“New Orleans.”
The second must-read screed comes from David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker. In a piece for the September 9 issue, Remnick recalls that during the 2000 U.S. presidential debates, Bush “informed his opponent, Al Gore, that natural catastrophes are ‘a time to test your mettle.’ Bush had seen his father falter after a hurricane in South Florida. But now he has done far worse. Over five days last week, from the onset of the hurricane on the Gulf Coast on Monday morning to his belated visit to the region on Friday, Bush’s mettle was tested--and he failed in almost every respect.” Remnick continues:
[T]o a frightening degree, Bush’s faults of leadership and character were brought into high relief by the crisis. Suntanned and relaxed after a vacation so long that it would have shamed a French playboy, Bush reacted with fogged delinquency, as if he had been so lulled by his summer sojourn that he was not quite ready to acknowledge reality, let alone attempt to master it. His first view of the floods came, pitifully, theatrically, from the window of a low-flying Air Force One, and all the President could muster was, according to his press secretary, “It’s devastating. It’s got to be doubly devastating on the ground.” The moment demanded clarity of mind and rigorous governance, and yet he could not summon them. The performance skills Bush eventually mustered after September 11th--in his bullhorn speech at Ground Zero, in his first speech to Congress--eluded him. The whole conceit of his Presidency, that he was an instinctive chief executive backed by “grownups” like Dick Cheney and tactical wizards like Karl Rove, now seemed as water-logged as Biloxi and New Orleans. The mismanagement of the Katrina floods echoed the White House mismanagement--the cavalier posture, the wretched decisions, the self-delusions--in postwar Iraq.After four years of sucking up to the Bush White House, when they weren’t simply excusing administration errors of judgment or outright arrogance, the American media finally seem to have stirred from their complacency. This change may have started with the disclosure in June of Watergate informant “Deep Throat’s” true identity, which served to remind young journalists that greater skepticism toward whoever’s sitting in the Oval Office can bring rich rewards. Then came Cindy Sheehan, the grieving mother from Vacaville, California, whose lone vigil outside Bush’s Crawford, Texas, vacation estate sparked a broader anti-Iraq war movement and sent his approval ratings into the basement. The White House’s feeble, bumbling response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina has only ripped off what remained of Emperor George’s clothes, exposing him not just to more pointed questions, but to outright ridicule.
Just as serious, the President’s priorities, his indifference to questions of infrastructure and the environment, magnified an already complicated disaster. In an era of tax cuts for the wealthy, Bush consistently slashed the Army Corps of Engineers’ funding requests to improve the levees holding back Lake Pontchartrain. This year, he asked for $3.9 million, $23 million less than the Corps requested. In the end, Bush reluctantly agreed to $5.7 million, delaying seven contracts, including one to enlarge the New Orleans levees. Former Republican congressman Michael Parker was forced out as the head of the Corps by Bush in 2002 when he dared to protest the lack of proper funding.
Similarly, the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, which is supposed to improve drainage and pumping systems in the New Orleans area, recently asked for $62.5 million; the White House proposed $10.5 million. Former Louisiana Senator John Breaux, a pro-Bush Democrat, said, “All of us said, ‘Look, build it or you’re going to have all of Jefferson Parish under water.’ And they didn’t, and now all of Jefferson Parish is under water.”
The President’s incuriosity, his prideful insistence on being an underbriefed “gut player,” is not looking so charming right now, either, if it ever did. In [an] interview, he said, “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.” Even the most cursory review shows that there have been comprehensive and chilling warnings of a potential calamity on the Gulf Coast for years.
No wonder the prez has had to fly back to the Gulf Coast for more photo ops, and is struggling to put the hurricane behind him in favor of focusing on U.S. Supreme Court appointments. It’s damage-control time. He can only hope to do a better job of overcoming his new image as a failure in the face of a natural emergency, than he did in preventing or reacting quickly to that emergency when it arrived.
ADDENDUM: As if hurricane victims haven’t already endured enough, U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania) now wants to penalize folks who refuse to leave what remains of their homes.
READ MORE: “Political Hurricane,” by John Dickerson (Slate); “FEMA Director Singled Out by Response Critics,” by Spencer S. Hsu and Susan B. Glasser (The Washington Post); “Clinton: Government ‘Failed’ People” (CNN); “Washing Away the Conservative Movement,” by William Rivers Pitt (TruthOut); “The Politics of Hurricane Relief,” by Eric Boehlert (Salon); “Hurricane Katrina: Worse Than 9/11?,” by David Corn; “In the Ruins,” by Nicholas Lemann (The New Yorker).