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Katrina rips Bush a new one
Forget Iraq, the Supreme Court nominations, and Social Security — it took a hurricane to wake up the press, raise the issue of race and class, and redefine the political landscape.
Related Links


The New Orleans Times-Picayune in New Orleans

This newspaper continues to carry the latest news from the stricken city and is putting together a missing-persons database.

The Gallup Organization

This polling outfit is measuring the public’s response to Katrina; 93 percent say the huricane is the worst natural disaster of their lifetime.

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi

This is the official Web site of the Democratic congresswoman who is taking a lead role in criticizing the government’s response to Katrina.

Hurricane Katrina did not simply destroy physical infrastructure, social fabric, and countless lives on America’s Gulf Coast. It blew away the ground rules that had defined post-9/11 American politics and protected the most polarizing administration in recent history — one that failed to articulate a coherent domestic agenda, tossed gasoline on the smoldering culture wars, and dragged the country into a divisive and very likely disastrous war in Iraq.

All the elements that George W. Bush and Karl Rove had exploited for political gain — a timid and kowtowing mainstream media, a deafening silence about America’s growing underclass, the fear that criticizing the White House in the era of Al Qaeda was tantamount to treason, and Bush’s can-do, cowboy image — were shattered by the same winds and rains that savaged casinos in Biloxi and homes in Jefferson Parish.

What emerged from the rubble — with the nation’s collective psyche now a toxic stew of shock, shame, fear, and anger — were the hard truths about our society’s frightening inequities and our government’s horrifying incompetence.

• Rapper Kanye West, appearing during a NBC concert/fundraiser, stared straight into the camera and declared that "George Bush doesn’t care about black people."

• Jefferson Parish president Aaron Broussard openly sobbed during a television interview in which he declared that the "bureaucracy has committed murder here in the Greater New Orleans area."

• A grim-faced Tim Russert, appearing barely to conceal his fury, opened a Meet the Press interview with Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff by demanding: "Are you, or anyone who reports to you, contemplating resignation?"

• Reporting from New Orleans, Fox News’s Geraldo Rivera stiff-armed bloviating Bill O’Reilly’s efforts to shift responsibility away from the White House by declaring: "This is Dante’s Inferno, Bill. There is no way to sugarcoat it. This is the worst thing I’ve seen in a civilized nation."


In an interview with Fox News, Chertoff warned that "we need to prepare the country for what’s coming. It is going to be about as ugly a scene as you can imagine." He was referring to the many rotting corpses that will be unearthed when New Orleans is drained of floodwater. But he could have also been speaking about the much deeper national trauma to come.

Yes, the cameras will be on hand for the grisly scenes when the dead are finally found. And survivors will eventually tell their wrenching tales of death and delay on the TV newsmagazines. But there will also be shocks to the economy. There will be serious political implications for the White House. And there will be what columnist David Brooks, quoting historian John Barry, called the "human storm," a social backlash to Katrina that will highlight the yawning chasms and simmering resentments of race and class.

What happened in New Orleans, when a largely minority underclass was trapped in a drowning city to suffer, die, and, on occasion, engage in criminal violence, not only reinforced the notion that our society is deeply divided by color and money. It sent the inescapable message that the third world exists right here in 21st-century America.

Jesse Jackson drove that point home with blunt-force trauma when he assessed the scene in New Orleans and declared that "it looks like Africans in the hull of a slave ship." Musician and New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis eloquently, albeit more subtly, raised the specter of different treatment for different classes when he said that "we hear a lot of words, but we don’t see a lot of action."

There were some smaller race-based brushfires that leapt up from the ruins of the storm in the media. A controversy erupted over two photographs, one that described a black youth with groceries as a looter and another of two lighter-skinned people described has having found groceries. There was a debate over the use of the word "refugee" to describe the displaced residents, with some arguing that the word connotes second-class status. But those battles only direct our attention to the overriding issue, illustrated by statistics from a New York Times story on racial disparity in New Orleans: 35 percent of the city’s black residents — almost 110,000 people — lived in poverty, according to the 2000 census. More than half of the impoverished black households in that city did not have an automobile — and thus had little hope of escape from Katrina.

Surveying the displaced poor who have been shipped off to the Houston Superdome, Fox News Channel’s Greta Van Susteren put it succinctly. "The rich people are lucky," she said. "These people aren’t."


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Issue Date: September 9 - 15, 2005
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