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.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who had scheduled a 10:30 session at the National Press Club, teed off on Bush's admission. "I would say to the president, 'I agree,' " said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). He added: "God cannot be pleased with our response."

Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill) mocked Bush's "historic record of presidential vacations."

As the black caucus was wrapping up, Bush was arriving in Mobile for a Katrina briefing. He looked at a map and clasped his wrist as others praised the administration's efforts. He shifted his "not acceptable" to the conditional tense, saying "If it's not going exactly right, we're going to make it go exactly right."

From there, Bush went to tour a Biloxi, Miss., neighborhood and tried to direct victims to the Salvation Army. "Do you know where the center is down here?" he asked them.

"There's no center there, sir," a worker interjected. "It's a truck."

"A truck?" Bush continued. "Isn't there a Salvation center down here?"

"It's wiped out sir," the worker said. "Wiped out."

While Bush toured, Republican House leaders (sans Speaker Dennis Hastert, who had indelicately opined that it "doesn't make sense" to rebuild New Orleans) assembled at the Capitol to approve a recovery package. The GOP faithful were wavering.

"You might note a bit of frustration in my face and in my voice," said Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), a little flushed. "I will tell you: It is there. I am frustrated in my attempts to deal with a wide array of bureaucracy in trying to get assets on the ground."

"Extremely disappointed by the tardiness," was the view of Rep. Katherine Harris (Fla.). Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.) waved a complaint being sent to FEMA and said that "frustration levels are reaching an all-time high."

Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the number three Republican in the House, was little more supportive. Though saying Bush didn't deserve all the criticism, he said: "I agree with the president's comments this morning that the response so far has been unacceptable."

At almost that exact moment, Bush, taking questions in Biloxi, was essentially rescinding his "not acceptable" assessment. "I am satisfied with the response," he said. "I'm not satisfied with all the results."

Twenty minutes later, the House passed the spending package. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), facing the cameras after the vote, started out with a diplomatic tone. But, asked about Bush's "satisfied with the response" remark, she became furious.

"How could the president be satisfied with the response?" she demanded. Pounding on the lectern in the House television studio, she continued: "I think we have a problem that the president thinks that this response is satisfactory."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company