I nominated September as the true "cruelest month" in a column a year ago. I cited Sept. 11, the start of World War II and other disasters to support that anthropocentric notion. I did not foresee that Hurricane Katrina would make me accidentally clairvoyant.
The coincidence of the storm's tragic aftermath and a subdued national remembrance this week of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is a telling one. That timing helps expose a widening gap between the Bush administration's priorities and the public's apparent assessment of the nation's needs and dangers.
Unfortunately, the White House has contributed mightily to this perception gap. Bush officials alternately reassure the public about the global war on terrorism with calming words and deeds and then startle them with abrupt warnings. Beneath both courses of action lies an overriding anxiety that al Qaeda will strike the American homeland again -- and on their watch.
So, rather than attending in large numbers ceremonies honoring the victims of Sept. 11, Americans who have not been asked to pay taxes to support the war on terrorism or to make other direct sacrifices spent last Sunday biking with the kids, writing out tuition checks or watching pro football games. The administration's mind-set of virtual undeclared emergency does little to counter the all too human determination to return to normal as quickly as possible.
It took a hurricane to fully alert the public to the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Department of Homeland Security and its overly narrow focus on terrorism, to the apparent exclusion of effective natural-disaster planning and operational capacity. That represents a serious leadership failure by President Bush and his chief aides.
They have flattened the Washington policymaking landscape so that power is centralized but responsibility is not. Katrina struck while Bush and his small circle of decision makers were scattered outside of Washington, most on vacation. The federal responses were sluggish and lacking in empathy when compared with the magnitude of the disaster, whatever the manifest shortcomings of local leadership.
Worse: The White House has left the impression that the Cabinet is forced to choose between preparing for terrorist attacks and planning for hurricanes. That does a grave disservice to Katrina's victims and to the need to be able to do both, and more besides, while battling Islamic extremist networks determined to harm the United States.
Even the struggle against terrorism has become bogged down in Washington's omnivorous turf wars. Months ago the president ordered a new National Security Presidential Directive to spell out Cabinet-level responsibilities for the war on terrorism. The main result so far has been a contentious and increasingly ill-tempered drafting exercise that has emphasized divisions between Pentagon, State Department and White House staffers.
Battles over bureaucratic control have stalled a process that is supposed to produce a speech by Bush later this month on the ideology of terrorism. The speech may finally serve to bring these conflicts to a head.
Even so, this is no way to validate the sacrifices of Sept. 11 and the military actions it sparked. This secretive administration hides even its emotional light under a bushel. It needs with even consistency to be candid with the public -- to reconcile its private fears with its public sang-froid.
It is impossible to understand the driving ethos of the Bush presidency -- including the decision to go to war in Iraq and perhaps Bush's seeming disengagement from a mere hurricane -- without understanding the president's burning determination to be able to say that he did everything he could to avoid a second major terrorist attack on the United States, agree with his measures or not.
Bush's informal minister of war, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, perhaps best captures this spirit. Think constantly and urgently about 10/12, he reportedly tells Pentagon staffers in private meetings -- and what you will wish you had done to prevent it. He adds when displeased with suggestions: "It won't be this [stuff]."
The 10/12 reference is Rumsfeld's epigrammatic way not of predicting the date of a new terror attack but of emphasizing that the horror of 9/11 is likely to be repeated and augmented. It is a chilling symbol of the broad challenge that Bush must confront.
He should end the bureaucratic battles over terrorism strategy and steady the nation for continuing that struggle. He should also restore authority to Cabinet departments and their agencies to deal with the nation's other needs, including disaster relief, instead of folding them into his personal political agenda. Those changes should become part of the legacy of Katrina, September's latest cruelty.