I watched President Bush address the nation from the Rose Garden yesterday afternoon. I watched on a fuzzy little black and white TV (my cable is still out from last week’s brush with Hurricane Katrina). I was reminded of an accidental headline in 1980 from the Boston Globe after a speech from President Carter: MUSH FROM THE WIMP. Well, President Bush did even worse than that. Stating the glaringly obvious — “one of the worst natural disasters in our country’s history” — he went on to inform the residents of the Gulf Coast that they would get what they need to recover. No kidding. He then rattled off a list of who’s doing what, how many tons of ice and food would be delivered, why we’re going to to get screwed at the gas station, and so on. He then said, hey, don’t worry, be happy, everything will be fine. (As a side note, he thanked the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities and other “armies of compassion” who would “overwhelm” the area with their good will. What is with this president and his military allusions? It’s getting a little creepy.)
I just don’t think that Mr. Bush gets it. One of the duties of the president is not only to be the Chief Executive but to be the Head of State as well. That means you are the leader of the country and you show a little more heart than just citing who’s doing what and grinningly announce that it will all be better, and don’t forget to send money to the Red Cross. There was nothing in what he said that indicated he knew or cared as to why the Gulf Coast was so vulnerable to a hurricane of this magnitude — it’s not like they haven’t hit there before — or that he understood that one of the reasons we have a federal government in the first place is so that we don’t end up relying on, in the words of one of New Orleans’ greatest fictional characters, Blanche DuBois, “the kindness of strangers.” There was also no indication as to whether or not Mr. Bush would do anything to prevent such a thing from happening again, such as restoring the funding that was cut from the budget for flood prevention in New Orleans to pay for his two pet projects: tax cuts and the war in Iraq. There was no indication that he even wanted to know how such a thing could happen — “Oh, well, shit happens.”
I was no great fan of Ronald Reagan, but I think under similar circumstances, I seriously doubt that Mr. Reagan would have given that speech yesterday; he would have staffed out the detail briefings to department heads and gone on TV to do what he did best — communicate the heartfelt sympathy that he would have felt (real or imagined, he at least had the training to sell it), and offered a sense of national unity and leadership from the Office of the President.
Apparently I’m not alone in thinking this, either. A New York Times editorial reams Mr. Bush a new one over his complacency, and even David Brooks wonders what the blowback will be on how the government’s response to a disaster that affected a part of the country that is mostly African-American and poor.
It’s no great revelation that disasters like this have a far greater impact on those who are least able to deal with it. The true test of this nation will not be just how we respond to it but what we learn from it. Given this administration’s track record, I don’t hold out much hope.