Hurricane George

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, September 14, 2005; 1:13 PM

After two weeks of being battered for ignoring a drowning city in the wake of a hurricane, the Bush White House is trying to get back into the business it knows best: Making its own weather.

President Bush was famously on vacation when the disaster hit. He and his hurriedly reconstituted staff of political operatives floundered for a while, reflexively pursuing the time-honored White House strategy of admitting no mistakes -- and sticking to it, even after it was clear that the nation had seen those mistakes with its own eyes.

But now there's a new plan.

The first stage of the White House's strategy: Stop defending the indefensible.

So Bush yesterday, in an almost unprecedented move, took responsibility for the problematic response to Katrina -- at least "to the extent the federal government didn't fully do its job right."

That strained, vague, partial acknowledgement -- wedged into a brief appearance with the visiting Iraqi president -- was nevertheless enough to garner the White House "Bush Takes Blame" headlines everywhere this morning.

And that, the White House hopes, will be enough to start putting the controversy behind him.

Then it's on to the next stage: Trying to shift the nation's attention away from the past and toward a future in which Bush looks more like he did after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That means reclaiming his mantle as a leader, championing the heroism of rescue workers, celebrating the compassion of the American people, and taking advantage of new opportunities to pursue conservative ideological goals.

With a nationally televised address from Louisiana on Thursday and a prayer service at the National Cathedral Friday morning, White House officials are hoping that their careful choreography and meticulously crafted scripts will give the media new imagery and a new story line to rival -- and hopefully even eclipse -- the horror of New Orleans.

What He Said

Here is the text of the remarks by Bush and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Here is the exchange about Katrina:

"Q Mr. President, given what happened with Katrina, shouldn't Americans be concerned if their government isn't prepared to respond to another disaster or even a terrorist attack?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government. And to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility. I want to know what went right and what went wrong. I want to know how to better cooperate with state and local government, to be able to answer that very question that you asked: Are we capable of dealing with a severe attack or another severe storm. And that's a very important question. And it's in our national interest that we find out exactly what went on and -- so that we can better respond.

"One thing for certain; having been down there three times and have seen how hard people are working, I'm not going to defend the process going in, but I am going to defend the people who are on the front line of saving lives. Those Coast Guard kids pulling people out of the -- out of the floods are -- did heroic work. The first responders on the ground, whether they be state folks or local folks, did everything they could. There's a lot of people that are -- have done a lot of hard work to save lives.

"And so I want to know what went right and what went wrong to address those. But I also want people in America to understand how hard people are working to save lives down there in not only New Orleans, but surrounding parishes and along the Gulf Coast. "

The Strategy

CNN White House correspondent Dana Bash explained the new White House battle plan to Paula Zahn last night -- and suggested that the president may actually have been among the last on board.

"BASH: Shifting from talk of a blame game to taking responsibility is the latest tactic by a Bush team still searching for the right strategy to erase intense criticism the president did not help Katrina victims fast enough. . . .

"So on this fourth trip to the Katrina devastated areas, the president will give a speech to the nation, the kind of rally-the-country moment the White House hopes will show Mr. Bush, whatever the initial failures, is on top of the crisis. . . .

"ZAHN: So -- so, my question is, what would have been the risk of the president making the same move a week ago or a week-and-a-half ago?

"BASH: Well, that is the question that we have been asking, certainly.

"And the answer tonight from a senior official is, well, they have been trying to have the president say this. And he has, they believed, had some iterations of this. But the bottom line is, the reason why -- one of the reasons, I should say, why they wanted the president to come out this directly and distinctly, saying he takes responsibility, because, at this point, they don't want Mike Brown to look like a scapegoat, FEMA Director Mike Brown, who resigned yesterday.

"They understand that a lot of the blame was on him. And people understand that the president -- the buck stops with the president. And the president wanted to say, I get that.

"ZAHN: And isn't part of the calculation, too, he has a big speech on Thursday night from New Orleans, and they didn't want that to be -- the mea culpa to be the headline in the Friday morning papers?

"BASH: That's exactly right.

"I have talked to an official who said that they were planning on putting this 'I take responsibility' line already into the speech. It's likely to be in there. And they also have some substance they want to move forward, talking about a potential road map on how to rebuild the Gulf Coast. They want people to try to focus as much on that and not as much on what we have been calling for a couple weeks the blame game."

Jim VandeHei and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday said he takes personal responsibility for the federal government's stumbling response to Hurricane Katrina as his White House worked on several fronts to move beyond the improvisation of the first days of the crisis and set a long-term course on a problem that aides now believe will shadow the balance of Bush's second term. . . .

"Already, he has dispatched his top strategist, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, and other aides to assemble ideas from agencies, conservative think tanks and GOP lawmakers to guide the rebuilding of New Orleans and relocation of flood victims. The idea, aides said, is twofold: ensuring that the federal response comports with Bush's conservative ideology, and preventing Katrina from swamping his second-term ambitions on Social Security, taxes, and Middle East democracy-building. . . .

"In what may become the next major post-Katrina policy, the White House was working yesterday to suspend wage supports for service workers in the hurricane zone as it did for construction workers on federal contracts last week, administration and congressional officials said. This possible move, described by administration officials as being under debate, already provoked preemptive Democratic protests. . . .

"Republicans are lining up behind plans to use vouchers to help displaced students find new schools, including private ones, and a mix of vouchers and tax breaks to help flood victims pay for health care expenses, from insurance coverage to immunization."

Elisabeth Bumiller and Richard W. Stevenson write in the New York Times: "Throughout his nearly five years in office, Mr. Bush has resisted publicly acknowledging mistakes or shortcomings, and his willingness in this case to edge up to a buck-stops-here statement, however conditional, was evidence of how shaken his presidency has been by the political fallout from the government's handling of the storm. . . .

"In saying he took responsibility for any failures of the federal response to the storm, Mr. Bush stopped short of acknowledging that he or anyone else had made mistakes."

But that was enough to "set the stage for an effort by the White House to pivot from dealing with urgent rescue and relief efforts -- and questions about what had gone wrong -- to setting out a vision of how the federal government could help rebuild devastated communities and reestablish Mr. Bush's image as a leader.

"The White House said that Mr. Bush would address the nation from Louisiana on Thursday night, during the president's fourth trip to the region since the hurricane and his first major speech on the disaster. On Friday, which he has designated a national day of prayer and remembrance, he is planning to speak at the Washington National Cathedral in the morning, and T.D. Jakes, a conservative African-American television evangelist, is scheduled to deliver the sermon with some evacuees from New Orleans in attendance."

Nicholas Riccardi, Ashley Powers and Josh Meyer write in the Los Angeles Times: "By accepting personal responsibility, Bush appeared to try to shift the debate away from finger-pointing to the reconstruction of New Orleans, a formidable task that could repair his frayed image as a leader if it succeeded."

Here's David Gregory on NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams last night: "Aides said today he wanted to clear the air, remind the public that he knows the buck stops with him. . . .

"It's a huge shift for an administration -- and particularly for a president -- who is loathe to admit mistakes. . . . Now the White House understands there has to be accountability. They've governed through 9/11, they witnessed the tsunami, and there's a lot of questions about why this administration, in the president's own admission, dropped the ball when it came to the biggest natural disaster in this nation's history."

About Thursday's Speech

ABC News's The Note reports: "An Administration official tells ABC News that tomorrow night's speech is in response to something 'unlike anything' the President has had to address, so the speech will be different than anything he has ever delivered, but there are some comparisons. In some ways, it will be 'explanatory' like the President's 2001 stem cell speech. It will have the 'feel' of an address to the nation, rather than a rally or state of the union speech, although like a SOTU, it will lay out a strategy.

"Tomorrow's speech and Friday's National Day of Prayer will serve as a two-act play intended to 'elevate the discussion,' get the focus off of the recriminations, and try to get the country pointed towards reconstruction and healing."

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Ideas being floated for Bush's address include the naming of a single, high-profile person to oversee the Katrina recovery, a comprehensive relocation plan for tens of thousands of displaced Gulf Coast residents, and a call for the nation to rally around, and contribute financially to, the victims.

"The speech also provides Bush an opportunity to change harshly critical assessments of his leadership qualities, which have suffered particularly by comparison to his widely praised response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Bush delivered at least two highly regarded speeches in the first days following the terrorist attacks, but has yet to address the nation on Katrina.

"Bush has visited the Gulf Coast three times since the hurricane and has dispatched his wife and vice president to the area. Yet he has done little to ease concerns among Americans that the nation is ill-prepared for a terrorist attack or another natural disaster, among New Orleans officials that the government failed them, and among African Americans that the government abandoned them."

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune quoting Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center: "The prime-time speech, Kohut said, 'also presents an opportunity to maybe mend some fences and make an attempt at renewing people's confidence in the government. For George Bush not to acknowledge how much consensus there was that government had failed probably would not have succeeded as well.' "

John Dickerson , asking Slate readers to help him predict the venue for Bush's Thursday speech, writes about the considerations: "[T]he president will undoubtedly try to pick a venue that is loaded with meaning, signifying competence, compassion, and hope all at once.

"The president could speak in front of an audience of hurricane survivors. That would go a small way toward replacing that aloof image of Bush flying over the flooded landscape on Air Force One. But introducing real people into a set piece would be a huge gamble for a Bush team terrified of serendipity. Speaking in a church shelter would be too overtly religious, the Superdome too much a symbol of government screw-ups. The deck of the relief ship Iwo Jima would signal competence and action but would also remind people of the president's cocksure 'Mission Accomplished' speech on the carrier Abraham Lincoln after the Iraq invasion."

Sept. 11's Lessons Unlearned

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Four years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the federal government has failed to enact crucial homeland security reforms that could have saved lives and improved the sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, according to a report to be issued today by former members of the Sept. 11 commission."

Who Failed?

Jonathan S. Landay, Alison Young and Shannon McCaffrey write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "The federal official with the power to mobilize a massive federal response to Hurricane Katrina was Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, not the former FEMA chief who was relieved of his duties and resigned earlier this week, federal documents reviewed by Knight Ridder show."

A key memo from Chertoff uncovered by Knight Ridder was issued fully 36 hours after the storm hit, and "suggests that Chertoff may have been confused about his lead role in disaster response and that of his department," Knight Ridder reports.

"Chertoff's hesitation and Bush's creation of a task force both appear to contradict the National Response Plan and previous presidential directives that specify what the secretary of homeland security is assigned to do without further presidential orders. . . .

"Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman, referred most inquiries about the memo and Chertoff's actions to the Department of Homeland Security. . . .

"Perino said the creation of the White House task force didn't add another bureaucratic layer or delay the response to the devastating hurricane. 'Absolutely not,' she said. 'I think it helped move things along.' "

National security analyst William M. Arkin writes in his new washingtonpost.com blog: "Weapons of mass destruction, not waves of mass destruction, are the president's priorities. . . .

"The same obsession that led the Bush administration to see weapons of mass destruction and terrorism in every tea leaf and go to war in Iraq now guides the entire federal government disaster response effort.

"How do I prove the point? I've got the goods."

Bush's History of Apologies

Bush's history of anything even remotely like an apology is a short one. There's only one I can recall, at least since I started this column in January 2004.

As I wrote in my May 7, 2004 column , in the wake of revelations of abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison, Bush told reporters about his talk with King Abdullah of Jordan:

"I told him I was sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners, and the humiliation suffered by their families. I told him I was equally sorry that people who have been seeing those pictures didn't understand the true nature and heart of America."

That, too, was a problematic apology. For one, he didn't actually directly apologize for the American behavior -- and he didn't directly apologize to those he had harmed, but instead to an unrelated third party.

The Return of Foreign Affairs

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "After nearly two weeks consumed by Hurricane Katrina, President Bush turned his attention back to the rest of the world Tuesday and confronted again the vexing challenges of an intractable war in Iraq, disputes with Iran and North Korea, and fitful relations with the United Nations.

"Bush played host to Iraq's first democratically selected president at the White House in the morning and persuaded him to abandon talk of imminent U.S. troop pullouts. Bush then flew to New York in the afternoon to attend a division-plagued U.N. summit and to solicit Chinese help in pressuring Pyongyang and Tehran to abandon nuclear weapons ambitions."

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "President Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao reaffirmed their agreement 'that there must not be nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula' and that the two nations will work toward that goal, a White House official said Tuesday after a meeting between the two leaders in New York.

"The meeting between Bush and Hu also culminated in plans for Bush to travel to China in November."

Here is the text of remarks yesterday by Bush and Hu, Hu's much more extensive than Bush's.

Today at the United Nations

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Before skeptical and silent world leaders, President Bush on Wednesday urged compassion for the needy and pressed the global community to 'put the terrorists on notice' by cracking down on any activities that could incite deadly attacks."

Today's Calendar

After a host of United Nations-related activities Bush returns to Washington tonight for a visit to the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue and then a dinner at the National Building Museum celebrating 350 Years of Jewish Life in America .

Signs of Oversight?

Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. writes a Washington Post op-ed questioning Bush's Iraq policies.

"It is no longer acceptable to say that our troops will stay in Iraq 'as long as necessary -- and not one day longer.' The American people need -- and our troops deserve -- a much clearer picture of the way forward.

"Congress must step up to its responsibilities by holding monthly oversight hearings with senior administration witnesses to assess Iraq's progress."

Internet Humor

From the Balkinization blog:

"Q: What's George Bush's position on Roe v. Wade?

"A: He really doesn't care how people get out of New Orleans."

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