This Time, There Won't Be Cake

On Aug. 29, 2005, the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall, President Bush helped Sen. John McCain celebrate his birthday.
On Aug. 29, 2005, the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall, President Bush helped Sen. John McCain celebrate his birthday. (By Susan Walsh -- Associated Press)
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By Dan Eggen
Monday, September 1, 2008

On the day Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans three years ago, President Bush was in the midst of a working vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., and the storm did little to change his schedule.

He traveled to Arizona, where he shared a birthday cake with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). He gave a speech at the Pueblo El Mirage RV Resort and Country Club, where he talked at length about Medicare and Iraq but offered just a few words on Katrina. He posed for a photo holding a guitar and standing next to someone wearing a sombrero.

It was a public relations fiasco. The White House is eager to avoid such mistakes this time around.

As Hurricane Gustav sped toward Louisiana and neighboring states yesterday, the president announced that he was canceling his plans to address the Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn., where McCain is slated to formally accept the GOP presidential nomination.

Instead, Bush will travel to Texas today to survey relief efforts and speak with storm evacuees. He said that he does not want to "impede" the emergency response by going to Louisiana right away but that he will do so "as soon as conditions permit."

"The American people stand with you," Bush said, addressing Gulf Coast residents. "We'll face this emergency together."

It was a stunning contrast with the response to Katrina, which became a turning point in transforming Bush from a remarkably popular president into a remarkably unpopular one. Bush's actions in the days after the hurricane hit on Aug. 29, 2005, quickly became symbols of the administration's sluggish and ineffective response to the crisis.

In addition to the sombrero picture, there was the infamous flyover, in which Bush surveyed the havoc wreaked by Katrina from the comfort of Air Force One on his way from Crawford to Washington. Then on his first visit to the region, four days after the storm struck, Bush told Michael D. Brown, then head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, that he was doing "a heck of a job" -- even as tens of thousands remained stranded in New Orleans.

The message Bush delivered yesterday was much more cautious. "There's been a lot of work done to get ready for the storm," he told reporters after a briefing from FEMA officials. "Across the Gulf Coast, there's governors and state officials and local leaders that are taking this storm very seriously and are preparing proactively."

The Answer's Still No

If there were any doubts about whether the White House intends to change course and turn over documents and testimony demanded by Democrats -- and a federal judge -- the events of last week put them to rest.

U.S. District Judge John D. Bates gave the Bush administration another courtroom slap Tuesday in a long-running legal battle with Congress, deciding there was no reason to delay an earlier order requiring former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers to testify. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, responded by immediately scheduling a Sept. 11 hearing.

Not so fast, administration lawyers said. On Thursday, the Justice Department responded with an unusual petition asking the D.C. appeals court to issue a stay -- a move that would probably push any testimony until after the November election, at the very least.

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