A Day of Contradictions

By Dana Milbank
Saturday, September 3, 2005

"I'm looking forward to my trip down there," President Bush said in the White House driveway yesterday morning before leaving to tour the storm wreckage.

Something must have happened in flight, because when he arrived in Mobile, Ala., two hours later, he reported: "I'm not looking forward to this trip."

For Bush, it was that kind of day. Nursing the lowest standing of his presidency, he could have used another bullhorn-atop-the-wreckage moment to symbolize his strong leadership.

Instead, while a flood of sewage and corpses filled lawless New Orleans, Bush found himself in an awkward photo op in an airport hangar, accepting hosannas from government officials and a pair of Republican governors.

"Thank you for all the help," Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said.

"Your people have been great," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said.

When it was his turn to talk, Bush congratulated the governors, then turned to FEMA Director Mike Brown and said, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

Addressing another member of his party, Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.), Bush promised: "Out of the rubble of Trent Lott's house -- he lost his entire house -- there's going to be a fantastic house. And I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch."

The performance, broadcast on most networks, drew ridicule from CNN anchor Daryn Kagan. "The president, finally making it to the Gulf Coast after five days . . . getting a briefing that frankly he could have gotten back at the White House," she said. "A lot of that seemed like a political opportunity for the cameras and the Republican governors."

Kagan, who has dated Rush Limbaugh, is no Bush basher. But yesterday was open season on the president. Democrats were brazen in their condemnation of his performance, and even Republicans were surprised and critical of him.

The day began with a damning lead editorial in the normally Bush-friendly Washington Times. "We expected to see, many hours ago, the president we saw standing atop the ruin of the World Trade Center," it said. Instead, "he risks losing the one trait his critics have never dented: his ability to lead, and be seen leading."

Bush, before boarding Marine One at 9 a.m. for his trip, made his first acknowledgment that the response has been lacking. "The results are not acceptable," he said.

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