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Terry Neal
washingtonpost.com Chief Political Correspondent
Friday, September 2, 2005; 11:00 AM

washingtonpost.com Chief Political Correspondent Terry Neal takes your questions and comments on politics, politicians and his latest columns Fridays  at 11 a.m. ET.

Read more Talking Points.

The transcript follows.

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washingtonpost.com: Questioning Bush's Sacrifice for a 'Noble Cause'.

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washingtonpost.com: War Supporters Concerned That 'Theocracy' Will Be Final Word in Iraq Saga.

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Terry Neal: Thanks for joining me this week for my regular chat on politics. Lots to talk about today, so let's jump right in.

Terry

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Alexandria, Va.: Terry-

When Hurricane Charley hit Florida on August 13, 2004, less than 48 hours later George W. Bush was on the ground in Punta Gorda, FL, surveying the damage, helping to "coordinate" the relief efforts.

When Hurricane Ivan hit Florida and Alabama on September 16, 2004, 72 hours later W. Bush was on the ground in Orange Beach, Alabama, surveying the damage, meeting with first responders, discussing aid efforts to Florida and Alabama.

Hurricane Katrina hit on August 29, 2005. Today is over 100 hours since landfall, and George W. Bush has yet to make it to any of the locations hit by the storm.

I don't wonder about this. It is clear, and it is appalling. With nothing at stake and the faces mostly black, this White House knows no boundaries of shame.

Terry Neal: Thank you for your comment. Since there was no question attached, I'll allow you your say here and move on.

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Washington, D.C.: I just wanted to offer a "thank you," for doing these chats. I don't often agree with The Post's official editorials and, to be honest, I often think that The Post's reporting lacks evenhandedness. For this reason, it's wonderful to have access to a variety of information sources. However, the fact that The Post makes available its reporters, editors, and others on-line to explain its decisions and defend its journalism is almost unique. It's one of the main reasons I keep up my subscription. Well done.

Terry Neal: Thanks for your kind words.

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Fairfax, Va.: Terry, I'm sick of seeing this nonsense about the Corps of Engineers budget being cut last year. As we saw with the floods upstream on the Mississippi/Missouri some years ago, the levee system is unsustainable in a truly large disaster. Period. Without spending tens of billions of dollars to raise New Orleans up by 40 feet, and built levees 200 feet high and 300 feet thick, they just aren't going to stand up to the worst that Mother Nature can dish out. And even if we did, we'd need to do it again in 20 years. One year of budget cuts did not cause this problem.

Terry Neal: I'm not sure you are correct about that. Look, I'm not an engineer, but I know that the Army Corps of Engineers has been saying for years that the levees should be and can be strengthened to handle at least a category 4 storm, I believe.

In an excellent column yesterday, AP political reporter Ron Fournier noted that Congress just pushed through, and Bush signed a $284 billion highway bill that included more than 6,000 pork barrel projects for lawmakers. Among them was $231 million for a bridge to an uninhabited island in Alaska. Fournier noted that that was more than double the $105 million that Army Corps of Engineers sought for improvements hurricane and flood improvements for New Orleans.

The White House slashed the request to $40 million and the Congress finally approved $42 million.

How the heck can the government justify this? That is a totally legitimate question to ask of the nation's elected leaders, I think. That what democracy is about.

Obviously, the improvements the Corps requested would not have helped this year. But the Corps has been demanding more money for these improvements for years. Something is wrong with the system when this sort of thing happens, I think.

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Arlington, Va.: Michael Brown of FEMA tried to lay the blame on the stranded because they didn't leave the New Orleans, which completely ignores the fact that many of the city's poor had no way to leave the city. President Bush says that no one could have known this would have happened, but we knew for days that a severe hurricane was going to hit the area. We've known for years that such a hurricane could destroy that city. And here's the part that shows the administrations complete and utter incompetence from top to bottom. If a terrorist had chosen to blow up New Orleans' levees, we now know that the response to that attack would be lacking, to put it nicely.

Can you point to anything that the Bush administration has done correctly these last two weeks?

Terry Neal: It's not my job to flak for the White House or anyone else. I will say that I have been amazed by some of the statements I've heard from Brown and Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff.

This morning, Brown was on NBC's Today show, being interviewed by Katie Couric, boasting about what a fabulous job the government has been doing getting food and water to people in need in New Orleans.

Then last night, I heard Chertoff on NPR being interviewed about a report that thousands of people were huddled in some other large building (other than the Superdome) for days with no water, food, adequate plumbing etc. And Chertoff was insisting that these were just rumors being spread by reporters.

To his credit, after the interview was over, Chertoff's office a note to NPR acknowledging that the reports were true and that they were going to try to get help there.

Chuck Hagel said something a few weeks ago about this administration being disconnected from reality. He was talking about Iraq. But a lot of people are saying the same thing applies to the administration's handling and public comments about this disaster, as well.

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Washington, D.C.: Terry-

Where are all the politicians? I guess they are just starting to come out of the wood work. But I recall that just after 9/11 there were Senators from all over the country touring with Sen. Clinton to "survey the damage" and remark on the destruction. Well in this case, the destruction is ALIVE AMERICANS stranded and left to slowly die. Where are they? This government is a disgrace and anyone who protects them is disgraceful.

Terry Neal: I think there's plenty of blame to spread around, from the mayor of New Orleans, who hightailed it to Baton Rouge, to the governor of Louisiana, who seems more concerned about making tough statements about holding the looters responsible, the members of Congress from both parties who have essentially ignored stark warnings of the potential for a post-hurricane humanitarian disaster, the current administration, which too busy patting itself on the back to acknowledge that the response has not been as quick and effective as it should have been.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Watching the situation play out in New Orleans, I wonder if people of color can ever bring themselves to vote for a Republican ever again? What do you think?

Terry Neal: Look, I don't think it's fair to put all of the blame on the GOP, or the Democrats. I mean, both parties have been privy to these warnings about the potential for disaster in New Orleans for years. But the way the system is set up in Washington, it encourage and condones members of Congress to place their first priorities on getting pork barrel dollars that they can brag about at home, rather than focusing on true spending priorities of this country. There's plenty of blame to spread around on that one.

Now having said that, George Bush is the president now. And his party controls the executive and legislative branches of this country. Bush likes view himself in sort of the CEO model of leadership. CEO's must be accountable for the actions and performance of their companies. So there is a certain amount of accountability that he is going to have to accept. Well, let me say it another way...He doesn't have to accept any accountability. But people will demand that he do so. And others, of course, will argue that he's done everything to the letter and criticize anyone who would dare question the actions of this administration.

People can figure out for themselves what to believe.

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Alexandria, Va.: You know Terry, I think the FEMA director is right that some of the residents of New Orleans bear the blame of this disaster. From Fats Domino down to your average Joe. They were told to evacuate and chose not to. You don't ride out category 5 (or virtually 5) hurricanes. The mayor of New Orleans begged them to leave and they didn't and now they are paying the consequences. It was $10 to get on a bus to leave NO before the storm. $10...

Terry Neal: I hear you. Personal responsibility matters. But some of the poorest of the poor, sickest of the sick, and weakest of the weak had no way to leave. But even the poor pay taxes to the government. And they have a right to have reasonable expectations of it as well. Having no water or food for days on end after a hurricane--especially when this type of disaster has been predicted for years--is not acceptable. Or at least that's the other side of the argument.

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Woodbridge, Va..: Terry, you are correct that there is plenty of blame to go around at all levels of government. But in your memory have you ever seen a more blatant display of incompetence from a public official than the performance of New Orleans' mayor during this crisis?

Terry Neal: I don't know if I would call it incompetence. Mayors in this country are not in charge of responding to disasters of this scale. However, in situations like this, people want to see their mayor, on the streets, hands on, if for no other reason that to send the message to people that he is on the case, demanding a response from the state and feds, and generally helping to coordinate the response effort.

I cannot criticize Mayor Nagy for all that he may or may not be doing behind the scenes. But I think he certainly left himself open, in symbolic way, for just not being there and being visible. I mean, I'm not down there, but on the reports, I keep hearing people ask, "Where is the mayor?"

This is what Giuliani understood after 9/11. And ultimately, despite whatever other problems and controversies he may have had as the mayor, his legacy will start with the way he responded on that fateful day.

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Chicago, Ill.: I am appalled as to what is happening in New Orleans and it completely changes the way I view government. This has been a complete and total failure of the US Government at every branch at every level. For days all we heard about was looters and gas prices while babies starved, sick people died, and everyone else was pushed to the brink. This has changed my life, I must go into to civil service now.

My question to you is, how much of the reports about looting and violence is real and how much is hyperbole? I read at least 40 times yesterday about someone shooting at a rescue helicopter at Superdome - they are portraying my people, Americans, as animals. I can't stand this.

Terry Neal: I hear you. I'm very disturbed by this as well. Look, there are obviously always going to be a small criminal element that will try to take advantage of a situation. But some of the reporting on this has failed to differentiate from the relatively small number of people stealing TV's out of Wall Mart, and the number of people who are looting for food, diapers, shelter, etc. Nor does it accurately reflect the fact that most people are not involved in this type of foolishness.

I mean, the city of New Orleans is going to be shut down for months probably. If you have a starving baby, you just don't know what you might do.

My comments should in no way be construed as condoning these idiots who are acting like Katrina was Santa Claus come early. They should be punished, and I'll be happy when they get what's coming to them.

But let's have some level of empathy. People are starving, hot, desperate, crowded, smelling, dying. And I'm more worried about those people--the vast majority of whom are comporting themselves in stellar, civilized manner, considering the circumstances--than I am about the few buffoons carting off DVD players from the local Target.

Some of this stuff that is happening down there would happen in any community, in any American city suffering similar circumstances. Let's keep some perspective here, please.

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Arlington, Va.: So is this New Orleans disaster gonna trump the coverage of Roberts confirmation hearing? Or can The Post walk and chew gum at the same time?

Terry Neal: Haha...I think so.

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Madison, Wis.: Alexandria's comment is so callous and beside the point, Alexandria should have gone all the way and said that those stuck in NO should just swim themselves to safety. The fact is, now, that government response, starting at the top, has been a bungle. I hear now that Bush is criticizing the response of the federal government (as if it were somehow separate from him) and Speaker Hastert is questioning the emergency funds. How divorced from reality are they?

Terry Neal: Thanks for your comments. And I'll post them as a response to the Alexandria emailer.

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New York, N.Y.: Terry,

What do you think of the way Fox News has been covering the looters in New Orleans?

They seem to be labeling all blacks as thugs and even placed the words "looters and thugs" on the screen while showing some of the chaos in New Orleans

Terry Neal: I have only watched a little bit of Fox, and I did get the sense that they were really playing up the looting angle of the story. But hey, this is the angle that is most interesting to some people out there, so there's a market for it, I guess.

Look, I'm not saying that should not be covered. I guess it's a matter of tone and proportion.

But hey, it's a free country. They can do what they want.

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Wichita, Kan.: The NY Times called Bush's Thursday speech on the hurricane his "worst ever". I did not hear it, was it that bad?

Terry Neal: Whew, I don't know. I've heard a lot of Bush speeches. I covered the campaign and listened to the stump speech hundreds of times in 1999-2000. Ha ha...

Seriously though, no I don't think it was his best speech. I recall both his reaction in NY to 9/11 with the bullhorn, and his subsequent speech to Congress, which I thought were great. This one, not so much.

But people can make up their own minds about it.

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Arlington, Va.: Terry, thanks for at least making an attempt to be fair. Most mainstream reporters having a loathing for George W. Bush that just seeps through their articles. I am not sure that you are not in that category, but at least you do at least try not to be hateful in your coverage like some of your colleagues, and that's commendable.

My question, do you think the media's coverage of this catastrophe would be different if we had a Democratic president in office? I do.

Terry Neal: Thanks for your note. I think the coverage would be the same if the response were the same. Yes.

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Terry Neal: Hey look folks, I've got to run. I know I'm leaving a TON of questions on the board. But I'm heading out to a taping of the Chris Matthews Sunday talk show on NBC. Check me out then, were I'll be discussing this issue again.

Take care and thanks for joining me!

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