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Stop, Children, What's That Sound?

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By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, September 27, 2005

There was a clear winner for best slogan at the huge, spirited, good-old-days antiwar demonstration that filled the streets of Washington on Saturday: "Make Levees, Not War."

It's no surprise that George W. Bush wasn't around when the multitudes of protesters -- police said 100,000, organizers claimed 300,000 -- paraded past the White House. After all, this is a president who restricts his town-hall meetings to townspeople who agree with him. He left his poor wife, Laura, to suffer the mocking crowds, who overshadowed the book festival she was hosting on the Mall.

The president's absence was understandable, though. His painstakingly crafted image of leadership and competence was so damaged by the botched response to Hurricane Katrina that he could hardly afford a repeat performance on Rita. So while a genuine Vietnam-era protest march was making its way past his house, complete with an appearance by Joan Baez, the president was on the road playing the role of flood-control commander in chief.

At the end of the day, though, he must have taken a moment to wonder how his mojo could have deserted him so completely. Rita turned out to be no Katrina, so there was no massive relief effort to command. The president still couldn't find his bullhorn moment. Meanwhile, his capital was overrun by the opposition in a spectacular demonstration of how unpopular the war in Iraq has become.

A counter-demonstration Sunday in support of the war drew a few hundred people. The comparison isn't a fair measure of opinion about the war, but it does say something about which side has passion and momentum.

I know that Iraq isn't exactly Vietnam, but haven't we heard this song before? You know: "There's something happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear''? Does that ring a bell at the White House? Or did everybody in this administration spend the whole Vietnam era listening to Pat Boone or whatever it was they grooved to in the frat houses?

Saturday had that vintage feeling. Cindy Sheehan was there to play her iconic earth-mother role, while the Rev. Jesse Jackson's presence somehow made the whole thing official. In the crowd there were next-generation merry pranksters bearing caricature puppets, legions of praying Buddhists, ranks of earnest Presbyterians for Peace and files of silver-haired Raging Grannies. There were countless young adults whose baby boomer parents had marched these same streets in protest over three decades ago. All that was missing was the sour tinge of tear gas in the air.

A kind of perfect storm has gathered to menace the president. Polls showing public opinion shifting against the war have helped push fence-straddlers into the antiwar camp. Hurricane Katrina led even supporters to question this administration's ability to manage, well, anything. It must be galling for Bush, nearly five years into his presidency, to be in the position of having to prove himself.

So far Bush's response has been to throw huge sacks of money at every problem -- like those giant sandbags the helicopters have been dropping onto the broken levees in New Orleans -- while at the same time bribing his Republican base with tax cuts the country can't afford. For those keeping score, Bush has pledged to spend whatever it takes in Iraq and whatever it takes in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, licensed the Republican-controlled Congress to lard spending bills with unprecedented pork, and, in the process, run up massive deficits that will burden the nation for generations.

Somehow in all that spending there wasn't enough money to draw up effective plans to evacuate an American city, any American city, in the event of a natural or man-made disaster. An administration that has tried so hard to project an image of overwhelming American power can ill afford to be seen as feckless. Opponents, both honorable and malicious, can sense weakness.

Yes, you can hear the echo of a familiar song. Now comes the part where the administration looks for a way to get out of its unpopular and expensive war "with honor," while at the same time continuing to flood the Gulf Coast with a storm surge of cash. This is also the part where the administration, its weaknesses exposed, comes under intense scrutiny. This is the part, especially, where the spotlight is turned on the practice of cronyism. How exactly did the unqualified Michael Brown get put in charge of such a crucial agency as the Federal Emergency Management Agency? Who exactly will get those zillion-dollar, no-bid contracts to rebuild New Orleans?

Listen to that protester, Mr. President. Worry about the levees, especially the ones around your administration. There's some serious seepage going on.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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