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Katrina rips Bush a new one, continued

Humiliation and heroism

The moment hijacked jetliners slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, September 11 burned into the national psyche as myth. Olympian in scale, the catastrophe was impossible to compass in mere mortal terms, prompting a near-desperate longing for heroes. We found them, too, in abundance: firefighters and police officers, local elected officials, ordinary people who faced certain death to avert further disaster, even the president himself (some would argue), once he found his feet.

Hurricane Katrina, though it came as less of a shock and, literally, in waves, will most certainly turn out to be just as catastrophic, and has already been described over and over as a calamity "of biblical proportions." But this is hardly the stuff of myth. Rather, Katrina put Americans face-to-face with nothing more ennobling than George W. Bush’s man-made free-market dystopia. An act of god or an evil enemy is humbling, even as it raises up heroes and sharpens courage and resolve. The encounter with Katrina was nothing short of humiliating. Even our will to see heroism in the carnage has been sapped, amid a spectacle of chaos that reduces everyone involved — including those of us helplessly looking on in horror — to either victims or villains.

That’s not to say that bravery and personal sacrifice, scrappy resourcefulness and basic human kindness have been in short supply. But how do we make sense of it? The old categories don’t hold. Are looters improvisational aid workers or lawless thugs? Are police officers who abandon their posts deserving of our respect as well as our compassion? Are emotional reporters acting as badly needed conduits for the besieged or abdicating their responsibilities as objective journalists? Are nearly hysterical Democratic local officials performing their public duty under the most dire conditions imaginable or taking advantage of partisan politics and time-worn tensions over federal-versus-local authority?

In each case, there are probably shades of truth in both views. But how to frame these stories — individually and collectively? In Bush’s free-market dystopia, it’s all crony capitalism and Christian-conservative-base watch: clean-up projects go to Dick Cheney’s pals over at Halliburton, oil executives are asked to "give," but not to even think about cutting their profits for a few months, and when the White House initially posted a list of relief charities for a public frantic to help, its first instinct was to prioritize faith-based programs. Bush’s ghastly insensitivity — flying out to San Diego to compare himself with FDR and yukking it up with reporters about looking forward to sitting on Trent Lott’s reconstructed porch as poor black people were dying in the watery hell of New Orleans — combined with his transparently forced show of compassion were truly villainous, by any measure. Meanwhile, Mayor Nagin, who stayed with his people, holed up in a downtown hotel crying out for help, was ineffectual — a victim.

No, we don’t hear much hero-talk this time around. Heroism arises out of disorder of mysterious origins; contending with human corruption of this scope and dimension is merely humiliating. When a small, indecent man spits in your face, it hardly enlarges the spirit.

- Catherine Tumber


The nation’s mainstream media has had a rough couple of years. They had been battered into near submission by a tight-lipped and contemptuous Bush administration that created its own phony news vehicles to circumvent them. The press’s dismal failure to scrutinize the White House’s faulty WMD rationale for going to war in Iraq has already elicited mea culpas from outlets such as the New York Times and Washington Post.

And yet, what appeared to start out as another overhyped TV story about extreme weather has turned into one of journalism’s finest moments in recent memory. Down in the hell of New Orleans — where reporters risked life and limb and were literally shocked by what they saw — they finally found the courage to believe their own eyes. CNN’s usually mild-mannered morning anchor Soledad O’Brien roasted FEMA director Mike Brown, who claimed not to know of the despair at New Orleans’s Morial Convention Center until he heard news reports.

"How is it possible we’re getting better intel than you’re getting?" O’Brien snapped. "I don’t understand how FEMA cannot have this information.... In Banda Aceh in Indonesia, they got food dropped two days after the tsunami struck."

During Bush’s photo-op visit to the region last week, he ran into the kind of questioning that explains why he rarely holds news conferences. "There are a lot of people wondering why you weren’t fixing the problems yesterday or the day before and why the richest country on earth can’t get food and water to those people that need it," one questioner asserted, leaving the president to say that on the one hand he was "satisfied with the response," but on the other that he was "not satisfied with all the results."

In the days to come, tougher questions will be asked as journalists switch from chronicling the scope of the disaster to piecing together how it happened. (The new issue of Newsweek describes a "strange paralysis" that set in at the White House, which wasted time in lengthy debates over "who was in charge.") Even more important than the answers they find is the fact that journalists now smell blood in the waters of Bush’s troubled second term.

"This is different" than 9/11, said USA Today’s Susan Page on the Fox News Sunday show. "People will be more willing to criticize him. I think this [the Katrina fallout] takes over the rest of the administration."


Now reportedly in the hands of Karl Rove, White House efforts at damage control will likely take several forms. One will include a compassion campaign, a smoother version of his father’s infamous "Message: I care," theme from the 1992 election. The other will feature surrogates, who will deflect blame onto other officials — most likely local and regional ones. Any serious postmortem is likely to find fatal shortcomings at all levels of government, including state and city. But Bush himself will have to face several layers of damning questions in the aftermath of Katrina.

The first concerns his belated and inappropriate response to the events unfolding on every television screen last week. Bush’s remarks on ABC’s Good Morning America that "I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees," have already come back to haunt him.... His first journey to the area, during which he uttered the immortal words, "Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job," about the largely clueless FEMA director, struck the wrong emotional chord and was viewed as a public-relations failure.

The administration will be asked to explain its failure to heed dire warnings about New Orleans and its refusal to allocate funds to protect against the kind of havoc wrought by Katrina. That will trigger even larger debates about Bush’s priorities and his decision to pour human and financial resources into a war in Iraq that is losing the support of the American people. And finally, Katrina raises legitimate questions about the administration’s ability to protect us from and react to a terrorist attack, the linchpin of the Bush presidency.

"As a test of the homeland-security system, this was a failure," declared former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, one of the many critics of the government’s response to Katrina to have emerged from the right flank of the political spectrum.

Once the bodies are found and buried, expect some high-profile stagecraft in Washington. Noisy congressional hearings seem very likely. Despite this White House’s preference for loyalty over competence, someone’s head is likely to roll, with FEMA chief Brown’s the most obvious candidate. And Bush’s next decision on how to fill the new Supreme Court vacancy will have to also take into account the post-Katrina political calculus.

Even before the fallout from the storm, the American public was souring on Bush’s stewardship. A late-August Gallup survey found 52 percent of the respondents critical of his handling of foreign affairs; 59 percent disapproving of the situation in Iraq; 60 percent saying he is doing a bad job on the economy; and 76 percent upset with his handling of rising gas prices. Until now, he had somehow managed to remain largely unaccountable for those problems. But Katrina may well prove to be the tipping point.

"I think he’s really undermined his credibility at this point, and it really saddles him with the kind of problems that Johnson and Nixon faced," historian Robert Dallek, referring to two presidents who suffered disastrous second terms, told the New York Times.

Thanks to the forces unleashed and exposed by a hurricane’s fury — a torrent of bipartisan criticism, a newly emboldened media, and the ugly truth about race and class in this country — Bush will finally have to pay the overdue bill for a legacy of failed policies and costly mistakes.

Mark Jurkowitz can be reached at mjurkowitz[a]phx.com.

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Issue Date: September 9 - 15, 2005
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