The Politics of Katrina

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 7, 2005; 9:51 AM

For liberals, this has been the perfect storm.

Not that anyone would wish such massive death and destruction on Louisiana and Mississippi, but they now have a rare opportunity not just to criticize George W. Bush, but to paint his response to Katrina as a metaphor for his presidency.

This may be unfair, but politics is about performance, and in this case, even many Republicans acknowledge that the administration's performance was weak and confused.

After 9/11, the country rallied around Bush, and by the time the war on terror became politicized -- remember what city the last GOP convention was held in, days before the third anniversary of the attacks -- Democrats were wary of seeming to undermine that war.

After Iraq became ever more bloody, Democrats were muted in their criticism -- Kerry and many of his colleagues had voted for the war, you may recall -- and no one wanted to be seen as undermining our brave troops.

But the submerging of New Orleans, now that's a different story.

With missed opportunities before, during and after the storm, with FEMA run by an old pal of Joe Allbaugh's whose previous job had to do with horses, with Bush initially insisting the effort was going well when it most obviously was not -- here was a gold-plated chance for Democrats and liberals to slam the president. And few could resist tying the debacle to Sept. 11 and Iraq. I've culled the following examples:

Frank Rich : "From the president's administration's inattention to threats before 9/11 to his disappearing act on the day itself to the reckless blundering in the ill-planned war of choice that was 9/11's bastard offspring, Katrina is déjà vu with a vengeance.

"The president's declaration that 'I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees' has instantly achieved the notoriety of Condoleezza Rice's 'I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center.' The administration's complete obliviousness to the possibilities for energy failures, food and water deprivation, and civil disorder in a major city under siege needs only the Donald Rumsfeld punch line of 'Stuff happens' for a coup de grâce. How about shared sacrifice, so that this time we might get the job done right? After Mr. Bush's visit on 'Good Morning America' on Thursday, Diane Sawyer reported on a post-interview conversation in which he said, 'There won't have to be tax increases.' . . .

"Surely it's only a matter of time before Mr. Chertoff and the equally at sea FEMA director, Michael Brown (who also was among the last to hear about the convention center), are each awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in line with past architects of lethal administration calamity like George Tenet and Paul Bremer."

New Yorker Editor David Remnick "To a frightening degree, Bush's faults of leadership and character were brought into high relief by the crisis. Suntanned and relaxed after a vacation so long that it would have shamed a French playboy, Bush reacted with fogged delinquency, as if he had been so lulled by his summer sojourn that he was not quite ready to acknowledge reality, let alone attempt to master it. His first view of the floods came, pitifully, theatrically, from the window of a low-flying Air Force One, and all the President could muster was, according to his press secretary, 'It's devastating. It's got to be doubly devastating on the ground.' The moment demanded clarity of mind and rigorous governance, and yet he could not summon them. The performance skills Bush eventually mustered after September 11th -- in his bullhorn speech at Ground Zero, in his first speech to Congress -- eluded him.

"The whole conceit of his Presidency, that he was an instinctive chief executive backed by 'grown-ups' like Dick Cheney and tactical wizards like Karl Rove, now seemed as water-logged as Biloxi and New Orleans. The mismanagement of the Katrina floods echoed the White House mismanagement -- the cavalier posture, the wretched decisions, the self-delusions -- in postwar Iraq."


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