Senator Bears Witness And Bares Emotions

By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 9, 2005

Mary Landrieu returned to Washington yesterday, slogging through a day of official business as if through water.

"If my heart is a little heavy today, it's because I've seen more in the last two weeks than I've seen in my entire life," the Louisiana senator said in a floor speech. She stood at her desk, with colleagues rapt in their seats -- nearly all of them fellow Democrats (on orders from Minority Leader Harry Reid) and at least one Republican (Thad Cochran of Mississippi). Sniffles were audible from the gallery as Landrieu catalogued "what I've seen." Everyone knows what she saw, at least in its wide-angle contours of aerial devastation shots and death estimates.

But there was a vivid sense of otherness to Landrieu's day at the Capitol yesterday. She had the shellshocked bearing of someone who's been in a place difficult to describe. People greeted Landrieu delicately, like a mourner.

"This is all just so surreal," Landrieu said in a brief interview after her speech. She had spent the past 10 days at an Embassy Suites in Baton Rouge after evacuating her family's summer home in Slidell on Lake Pontchartrain, since obliterated. Last she heard, her childhood home in New Orleans was filled with five feet of water. Her mother and father -- the former mayor of New Orleans -- are okay, as are her eight siblings and 44 nieces and nephews. Of the seven Landrieu siblings who live in New Orleans, four had their homes destroyed.

She was reluctant to come back to Washington, Landrieu said. Don't focus on her, she pleaded -- a rare instance of a senator saying something like that and maybe even meaning it. But of course, there was fuss everywhere Landrieu went, the clop-clop-clop of her heels echoing down hallways amid camera clicks, processions of well-wishers, trailing reporters, the whole bit.

Still, she looked strangely isolated, even while Reid lavished praise on her at a late-morning news conference. He kept referring to her as "Mary," and Sen. Chuck Schumer patted her on the back. She barely mustered a smile all day. "Really, this is not about me," Landrieu said later, walking back to her office. "This is about telling the story. The full story."

Like every public official identified with Katrina, Landrieu has had her moments, good and bad. She publicly thanked federal and local officials on CNN, and received a swift and oft-replayed lecture from anchor Anderson Cooper, who derided her as "a politician." As the week wore on, though, she was spared much of the criticism endured by President Bush, FEMA head Michael Brown, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, among others.

Landrieu managed to avoid an attention-getting outburst at least until Sunday, when she appeared on ABC's "This Week" and said that "If one person criticizes them" -- meaning local officials -- "or says one more thing, including the president of the United States, he will hear from me. One more word about it after this show airs and I might likely have to punch him. Literally."

Landrieu revisited that interview during her 26-minute floor speech yesterday. "I want to be clear for the record in that piece that you all saw with me with George Stephanopoulos," she said. "I was not crying in anguish because the home that I walked out of with my children was gone. I knew it would be gone when I left. It was an anguished plea to the only person that I thought could hear, and that was God Himself."

"I think the last week has definitely changed her," Landrieu's press secretary Brian Richardson said after the speech. "This is probably the most important point in her career."

He corrected himself, saying that this moment isn't about Landrieu, and, of course, it's not. "This is the most important issue of her career," he said, meaning the hurricane.

Landrieu got back to her Capitol Hill home late Wednesday night, in time to take her kids to school yesterday. At 10:45, she attended a brief meeting with Democratic senators in Reid's office. Landrieu was at once gracious and defiant, thanking the president and then -- in her floor speech -- ridiculing his statement last week that no one "anticipated the breach of the levees."

"Everybody anticipated the breach of the levee, Mr. President," Landrieu said. This included the clay figurine, Mr. Bill, from "Saturday Night Live." Landrieu is a friend of Walter Williams, a native of New Orleans and Mr. Bill's creator, and he had deployed the high-voiced and squishable icon in public service announcements about Louisiana's coastal erosion problems before the storm. "How can it be that Mr. Bill was better informed than Mr. Bush?" Landrieu asked in her one hint of a laugh line all day.

No one laughed.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company