My '05 Hits and Misses
When I sat down to review the past year's columns for my annual accounting of errors and misjudgments, I realized that the politicians I cover had set an impossibly high standard in 2005. They had screwed up so often and so spectacularly that my goofs were almost certain to seem trivial by comparison.
How do you match the trio of Republican misjudgments summoned up by the names Katrina, Harriet Miers and Terri Schiavo? How do you top the Democrats' decision to entrust their party leadership to that itinerant verbal blunderbuss, Howard Dean?
Fear not, folks. The proprietor of this space is up to the challenge. On Sept. 4, I published a column so wildly off target that it could have gotten me indicted by a special prosecutor. It was written in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as President Bush was flying back from vacation to organize the federal response to that catastrophe.
Without waiting for him to actually do anything, I saluted his performance, leading off with the assertion that "it took almost no time for President Bush to put his stamp on the national response to the tragedy that has befallen New Orleans and the Gulf Coast."
And then this howler: "Because the commander in chief is also the communicator in chief, when a crisis emerges the nation's eyes turn to him as to no other official. We cannot yet calculate the political fallout from Hurricane Katrina and its devastating human and economic consequences, but one thing seems certain: It makes the previous signs of political weakness for Bush, measured in record-low job approval ratings, instantly irrelevant and opens new opportunities for him to regain his standing with the public."
What it opened, of course, was an abyss of doubts about the president's awareness of what was happening and about the competence of his administration. He's still paying for that episode.
But if Bush were as vindictive toward the press as is sometimes reported, he could well turn to me and say: "You're doing a heck of a job, too, Davey."
The giant goof on Katrina was forecast, in a way, in a Jan. 13 column on the Department of Homeland Security that, in retrospect, looks much too upbeat. When Tom Ridge retired as its first secretary, I wrote that local officials were generous in their praise of him, adding that "Ridge enjoyed the advantage of having, as one of the components of his new department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose operations in the wake of hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters are regarded as models of efficiency by state and local officials."
That might have been true under the Clinton administration's James Lee Witt. It certainly proved untrue under this administration.
If I was far too generous to Bush and the administration on those occasions, I was also too swayed by the rhetoric of his second inaugural address, accepting at face value his professions of undying faith in the universal values of freedom and democracy. His later dealings with Russia's Vladimir Putin and other authoritarians around the globe make that commitment seem a lot more equivocal.
On the other hand, the Inauguration Day essay on the perils of second terms looks relatively prescient, as does the column exactly one month later, on Feb. 20, in which I detected signs of the ultimate failure of Bush's Social Security reform. And the weakness and internal inconsistency of his budgetary policy were highlighted from the start -- and with a frequency that once again proved futile.
As for Congress, the tone of the columns was overwhelmingly -- and appropriately -- negative, with few exceptions. The levels of partisanship and pettiness were sickening, but I was happy to applaud the work of the Gang of 14 senators who averted a constitutional crisis by finessing the threatened showdown over judicial filibusters. They did the country, the Senate and future generations a considerable service.
Once again, the search for good news often took me out of Washington and away from politics, to places where individuals and nonprofit groups were doing splendid things, from building affordable housing and rehabilitating abandoned neighborhoods to educating dropouts and preserving pristine wilderness.
The column I feel best about, however, is the one praising the selection of John Roberts as the new chief justice of the United States. That was no goof.