It was late and weak, but contrition is good. Contrition is a start. Yes, I know, it does seem that George W. Bush can barely squeeze out the words accepting final responsibility for the nightmare in New Orleans. And, yes, his qualified mea kinda culpa implies that state and local officials might be more to blame than he is. It certainly would be nice for him to project more sincerity. At this point, though, even the appearance of contrition is a start.
But has Hurricane Katrina really shaken the swagger out of this maddeningly arrogant administration, wiping the smirk from its face? Was the president just offering Band-Aids and rhetoric, or will he really undertake the kind of fundamental reconstruction that leaves the Gulf Coast -- and the nation -- a better place? Does he realize that the enormous task ahead requires humility and flexibility, two qualities he seems so loath to display?
Bush takes great pains to come off as the least introspective man on the planet. Maybe he thinks self-doubt is a sign of weakness, but, of course, it's not. An excess of certainty led to this terrible fiasco, and we'd all be better off if he were occasionally visited by a little insecurity.
Remember that vintage news conference when he couldn't think of a single mistake he had made? Well, now there are a few that might come to mind -- even if they didn't occur to him in time for his Thursday night speech.
Start with putting political hacks in charge of the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- first his Texas crony Joe Allbaugh, then Allbaugh's crony Michael Brown. The useless Brown is gone, but not before standing there like a bunny in the headlights as the mother of all hurricanes swirled toward the Gulf Coast. FEMA worried more about lines of authority than the lines of dazed survivors making their way to the Superdome and the convention center. The president might want to think about how many lives that cost.
Will he at least begin reading the papers and watching the news? His defensive disclaimer that no one expected the levees to fail was shockingly, inexcusably wrong. Everyone was worried that the levees would fail. There's this TV station called the Weather Channel, Mr. President, and when there's a hurricane approaching, you really ought to check it out.
I don't expect the president to know who Kanye West is, since hip-hop isn't his thing, and maybe he shouldn't care that this talented, impertinent young man told a national television audience that "George Bush doesn't care about black people." But shouldn't he give some thought to the polls indicating that three out of four African Americans agree? One reference to historical racism, as if he had just learned of it, won't change many minds. The vast majority of black people in this country believe their president doesn't care a hoot about them, and that doesn't provoke even a tinge of where-did-I-go-wrong?
At least he finally noticed that almost all those black people in the Superdome and the convention center were also poor. Former first lady Barbara Bush was way ahead of him; he should listen more to his mother.
This isn't an exercise in apportioning blame; if it were, there would be plenty left over for Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, both of whom are finally displaying some contrition as well.
I'm focusing on the president because he will make the difference in the reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast -- and in applying the many lessons of Katrina to broader national policy. If he's going to make the right decisions, he'll have to ask questions. He'll have to abandon old assumptions. He'll have to read the papers. He'll have to open his eyes and open his mind.
A great American city lies bludgeoned and abandoned, its people scattered to the winds. Desperate problems of race and class, which many people would prefer to ignore, are exposed for all to see. Stirring words delivered in dramatic settings are cheap. In practical terms, the president has a choice. He can bulldoze the befouled neighborhoods, bring in a bunch of double-wides to replace the old shotgun shacks, stage a few photo ops patting cute children on the head and call it a day. Or he can really try to build a healthier, more equitable New Orleans. He can create not just new infrastructure but new opportunity, not just new homes but new lives.
But that would have to start with questions that don't come easily for him: What did I do wrong? What don't I know? How can I learn?