Floods Scour the Political Landscape, Too

By Tina Brown
Thursday, September 8, 2005

Even though it is so familiar in our imaginations, it is still a wonderful moment in the upcoming Discovery documentary "The Flight That Fought Back" when the doomed passengers on Flight 93 seize the food cart and race it down the aisle toward the cockpit like a battering ram, united in courage and rage. At the preview of the movie at the Bryant Park Hotel in Manhattan you could feel the exhalation of tension in the audience during the reenactment: the wish-fulfillment, the satisfaction at the virility of the gesture.

New York may have superficially recovered since 9/11, but the Bush victory in the election last year left a hangover of self-doubt that drained the city's mojo. Katrina's perfect meteorological and political storm has at least blown away that mood. New York's sullen sense of carrying around a deviant secret -- that President Bush is an empty flight suit -- has gone with the wind.

If 9/11 was Bush's Woodstock, Katrina is his Altamont -- the place where his ability to unite people behind a flurry of flag-waving came to look like the hollow sham it always was. John Edwards's mantra of Two Americas doesn't sound so corny now that Bush's soaring vision of democracy on the march has suddenly been laid as bare as an abandoned Superdome where the toilets are overflowing.

But for New Yorkers, the dimensions of the pain mean there is not much glee in saying "I told you so." Ever since 9/11 we've been endlessly stiffed on "homeland security." Millions for red Montana, nickels for blue New York.

We had to grit our teeth and host the cynical hijacking of 9/11 by the Republican convention last year, where even Rudy Giuliani franchised his (and our) authentic moment of heroism to the Bush reelection machine.

The twin towers are still a gaping hole in the ground fought over by greedy real estate agents, prima donna architects and culture warriors distractedly arbitrated by a Republican governor preoccupied with national political ambitions. The current plans for a third-rate office building on top of a bunker with a censored museum seems like a strange advertisement for freedom. But perhaps it suits the city's mood of lingering disappointment after 9/11's squandered goodwill. Osama bin Laden's outrage goes unavenged while we continue to suck wind in Baghdad.

But now, in Katrina's aftermath, there's something different in the air: the scent of insurrection. The needless torment of New Orleans has reignited the dormant passions of the election. E-mails are flying again between friends who've been out of touch for months, enclosing Web links to new polemics of disgust. The big donors with wallet fatigue after John Kerry's loss are ready to write checks again, big time, for any Democrat who shows courage.

It's as if the tragedy in the Gulf Coast has awakened us from a deep materialistic sleep to acknowledge the pain of poverty and racial inequality for the first time in years. Those Democrats who still temporize for fear of being tagged as "playing politics" don't seem to understand that being all kissyface and timid is as over as strategy as it is as substance. Better to play politics than play possum. Maybe Hillary should stop going on fact-finding trips to Alaska with her new Republican pals. Even before Katrina changed the landscape, her careful tactics of sleeping with the enemy had begun to annoy the town that adored her.

Out, damned euphemism! We are in a blazing moment of truth-telling that is holding the nation rapt before its TV screens. Two days after CNN's Anderson Cooper bawled out Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana for her and other politicians' "thanking each other" on the fabulous job they were all doing -- even as he'd just seen rats gnawing at a woman's body in the water behind him -- we saw the real Landrieu on ABC's "This Week."

Red-eyed and combative, she gave George Stephanopoulos an air tour of devastation and talked about the New Orleans sheriffs gripping handcuffs in their teeth as they swam to secure prisoners who would have terrorized the town further if allowed to escape. "If one person criticizes them or says one more thing," she told Stephanopoulos, "including the president of the United States . . . I might have to punch him literally."

Way to go, Mary! This is what America needs. The media-political axis has enabled a culture of talking points and spin to the point that harsh reality had nearly vanished from the national conversation. It's an index of the president's disconnect that last week he could utter the words "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job!" to FEMA Director Michael Brown. Or that he imagined he could actually suggest the administration should investigate the scandal itself. (And drag its feet on its conclusions until after the next election. We know the score now.)

In yesterday's New York Post, Dick Morris wrote that W's reputation will surely recover because rebuilding New Orleans can now become a rallying theme, a "new source of popularity. . . . A disaster like Katrina is just what a president needs to anchor his second term." The cynicism is breathtaking but also shrewd.

What's so troubling about Bush is not that he is incompetent, as many currently charge. It's that he is dismissive, unless programmed to be otherwise. His competence, as Justin Franks pointed out in "Bush on the Couch," extends only to personal self-preservation -- to winning. When the less fortunate are endangered, he reverts to the primal aphasia he learned at his mother's knee. "Everybody is so overwhelmed by the hospitality," Barbara Bush commented from Houston on NPR Monday evening, adding, with a chilling matriarchal chuckle, "And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway. This is working very well for them."

Wow. How's that for one family's values? New York's only consolation this 9/11 is that we no longer feel so marginal as we recoil.

2005Tina Brown


© 2005 The Washington Post Company