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The 'Stuff Happens' Presidency

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, September 7, 2005

We're not number one. We're not even close.

By which measures, precisely, do we lead the world? Caring for our countrymen? You jest. A first-class physical infrastructure? Tell that to New Orleans. Throwing so much money at the rich that we've got nothing left over to promote the general welfare? Now you're talking.

The problem goes beyond the fact that we can't count on our government to be there for us in catastrophes. It's that a can't-do spirit, a shouldn't-do spirit, guides the men who run the nation. Consider the congressional testimony of Joe Allbaugh, George W. Bush's 2000 campaign manager, who assumed the top position at FEMA in 2001. He characterized the organization as "an oversized entitlement program," and counseled states and cities to rely instead on "faith-based organizations . . . like the Salvation Army and the Mennonite Disaster Service."

Is it any surprise, then, that the administration's response to the devastation in New Orleans is of a piece with its response to the sacking of Baghdad once our troops arrived? "Stuff happens" was the way Don Rumsfeld described the destruction of Baghdad's hospitals, universities and museums while American soldiers stood around. Now stuff has happened in New Orleans, too, even as FEMA was turning away offers of assistance. This is the stuff-happens administration. And it's willing, apparently, to sacrifice any claim America may have to national greatness rather than inconvenience the rich by taxing them to build a more secure nation.

As a matter of social policy, the catastrophic lack of response in New Orleans is exceptional only in its scale and immediacy. When it comes to caring for our fellow countrymen, we all know that America has never ranked very high. We are, of course, the only democracy in the developed world that doesn't offer health care to its citizens as a matter of right. We rank 34th among nations in infant mortality rates, behind such rival superpowers as Cyprus, Andorra and Brunei.

But these are chronic conditions, and even many of us who argue for universal health coverage have grown inured to that distinctly American indifference to the common good, to our radical lack of solidarity with our fellow citizens. Besides, the poor generally have the decency to die discreetly, and discretely -- not conspicuously, not in droves. Come rain or come shine, we leave millions of beleaguered Americans to fend for themselves on a daily basis. It's just a lot more noticeable in a horrific rain, and when the ordinary lack of access to medical care is augmented by an extraordinary lack of access to emergency services.

Even if we'll never win the national-greatness sweepstakes for solidarity, though, we've long been the model of the world in matters infrastructural, in roads, bridges and dams and the like. But the America in which Eisenhower the Good decreed the construction of the interstate highway system now seems a far-off land in which even conservatives believed in public expenditures for the public good. The radical-capitalist conservatives of the past quarter-century not only haven't supported the public expenditures, they don't even believe there is such a thing as the public good. Let the Dutch build their dikes through some socialistic scheme of taxing and spending; that isn't the American way. Here, the business of government is to let the private sector create wealth -- even if that wealth doesn't circulate where it's most needed. So George W. Bush threw trillions of dollars in tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, and what did they do with it? Did the Walton family up in Bentonville raise the levees in New Orleans? Did the Bass family over in Texas write a tax-deductible check to the Mennonites for the billions of dollars they would need to rescue the elderly from inundated nursing homes?

Even now, with bedraggled rescuers pulling decomposed bodies from the muck of New Orleans, Bill Frist, the moral cretin who runs the U.S. Senate, wanted its first order of business this week to be the permanent repeal of the estate tax, until the public outcry persuaded him to change course. The Republicans profess belief in trickle-down, but what they've given us is the Flood.

The world looks on in stunned amazement, unable to understand how a once great nation has grown so indifferent not just to its poor and its blacks but even to the most rudimentary self-preservation. Some of it is institutional racism, but the primary culprit is the economic libertarianism that the president still espouses whenever he sells his Social Security snake oil. It's that libertarianism, more than anything else, that has transformed a great city into an immense morgue.

But, hey -- stuff happens.

meyersonh@washpost.com

© 2005 The Washington Post Company