A Dearth of Answers

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, September 1, 2005; 12:30 PM

Diane Sawyer's rare live interview with President Bush this morning on ABC's Good Morning America exposed one of the president's greatest weaknesses: He doesn't have the answers to some of the most important questions.

The White House press corps is sort of used to that by now, but the American public -- clamoring for answers in the wake of the horrific Gulf Coast disaster -- may be less sympathetic.

Bush smiled disarmingly and delivered plenty of assurances in his interview with Sawyer, but much of what he said was not directly responsive to what Sawyer asked. Consider:

Sawyer: "Mr. President, this morning, as we speak . . . there are people with signs saying 'Help, come get me'. People still in the attic, waving. Nurses are phoning in saying the situation in hospitals is getting ever more dire and the nurses are getting sick because of no clean water. Some of the things they asked our correspondents to ask you is: They expected -- they say to us -- that the day after this hurricane that there would be a massive and visible armada of federal support. There would be boats coming in. There would be food. There would be water. It would be there within hours. They wondered: What's taking so long?"

Bush: "Well, there's a lot of food on its way. A lot of water on the way. And there's a lot of boats and choppers headed that way. Boats and choppers headed that way. It just takes a while to float 'em! . . . "

Sawyer: "But given the fact that everyone anticipated a hurricane five, a possible hurricane five hitting shore, are you satisfied with the pace at which this is arriving? And which it was planned to arrive?"

Bush: "Well, I fully understand people wanting things to have happened yesterday. I mean, I understand the anxiety of people on the ground. I can imagine -- I just can't imagine what it is like to be waving a sign saying 'come and get me now'. So there is frustration. But I want people to know there is a lot of help coming.

"I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees. They did anticipate a serious storm. But these levees got breached. And as a result, much of New Orleans is flooded. And now we are having to deal with it and will."

Later, Sawyer asked about gas prices and oil company profits.

Sawyer: "Gas prices going up at the pumps. We have seen in Atlanta the lines backing up. And some of the prices are going up to $4, $5. First of all, what do you want to say -- what is the government putting in place to guard against price gouging? And also, is this a time to call on Americans simply to pull back and not use the gas? . . . "

Bush: "First of all, you are right. We ought to conserve more. And I would hope Americans conserve if given a choice. Secondly, we have done some things to help on the gas prices. . . ."

Sawyer: "Some people have said that the oil companies themselves should simply forfeit some of their profits in this time of national crisis. One conservative commentator, a popular one, called for a 20 percent reduction in the profits. Do you -- "

Bush: "Well, what I'd like to see in corporate America, is to make sure they contribute to helping these victims. . . . "

And what about the long-term federal role?

Sawyer: "The prospect, some people are saying, [is] of a million American refugees in place for a very long time. . . . What are you saying to them about how far the federal government will go to get their lives back? Do you promise jobs? Do you promise that they will be moved back into housing and how soon?"

Bush: "Well, first of all, we've got to get a handle on the situation. In other words, we have to stop the flooding in New Orleans and, you know, rescue the folks. Get them out of harm's way. Get food and medicine to people. Then take a serious assessment about what it is going to need to rebuild New Orleans. And parts of Mississippi."

Sawyer, her interview over, turned things back over to anchors Charlie Gibson and Robin Roberts.

Said Roberts: "Diane was right. People are asking: Where is the help? We need it now. We keep hearing, they keep hearing, that's it's coming. But they need it now."

About Those Levees

"I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees," Bush said.


Just for starters, how about Sunday's New Orleans Times-Picayune , which described a computer model run by the LSU Hurricane Center. "It indicated the metropolitan area was poised to see a repeat of Betsy's flooding, or worse, with storm surge of as much as 16 feet moving up the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet and topping levees in Chalmette and eastern New Orleans, and pushing water into the 9th Ward and parts of Mid-City."

Or Monday's New York Times , in which New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin is quoted as saying that "Hurricane Katrina could bring 15 inches of rain and a storm surge of 20 feet or higher that would 'most likely topple' the network of levees and canals that normally protect the bowl-shaped city from flooding.

And as Andrew C. Revkin and Christopher Drew write in today's New York Times: "The 17th Street levee that gave way and led to the flooding of New Orleans was part of an intricate, aging system of barriers and pumps that was so chronically underfinanced that senior regional officials of the Army Corps of Engineers complained about it publicly for years."

Today's Coverage

Bush had Air Force One fly low over the Gulf Coast on his way back from Texas to Washington yesterday.

Here are various wire service photos taken from Air Force One, showing what Bush was able to see.

"It's devastating," Bush told aides as he flew over New Orleans. "It's got to be doubly devastating on the ground."

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "After a month-long retreat at his Texas ranch, Bush returned to Washington on Wednesday in crisis-management mode, where his administration is likely to remain indefinitely. With his poll numbers at an all-time low, Bush faces one of the stiffest leadership tests since Sept. 11, 2001, with continued violence in Iraq, gasoline prices topping $3 a gallon in many places and now what he called 'one of the worst natural disasters in our nation's history.' . . .

"While critics accused Bush of being slow to recognize the horrible scale of the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina on Monday, he moved Wednesday to reassert his public leadership role and reassure the American people that he is in charge. After his 35-minute flyover along the Gulf Coast, he raced back to Washington, met his disaster relief team in the White House and strode into the Rose Garden to address the nation. . . .

"But in a capital suffused with anger and partisan division, it did not take long for Bush's leadership on Katrina to come under question. Noting that it took Bush two days to cut short his vacation and return to Washington, Democrats painted the president as dithering while New Orleans drowned."

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "The Bush administration stepped up the federal response on Wednesday to the devastation from Hurricane Katrina, deploying thousands more National Guard and active-duty troops to the Gulf Coast to help with rescue and relief missions, authorizing the release of oil from the nation's strategic reserve to blunt the economic effects of the storm and dispatching food, water and medical supplies to the region. . . .

"But with the situation in the region chaotic and still evolving, it was unclear how quickly and fully the plan would address the needs of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the storm and the ensuing flooding, or whether it would prove sufficiently large and well executed to deal with the long-term challenges the disaster presents."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "Not since he sat in a Florida classroom as the World Trade Center burned a thousand miles away has President Bush faced a test quite like the one he returned to Washington to confront this afternoon.

"After initially stumbling through that disorienting day almost exactly four years ago, Mr. Bush entered what many of his aides believe were the finest hours of his presidency. But unlike 2001, when Mr. Bush was freshly elected and there was little question that the response would include a military strike, Mr. Bush confronts this disaster with his political capital depleted by the war in Iraq.

"Even before Hurricane Katrina, governors were beginning to question whether National Guard units stretched to the breaking point by service in Iraq would be available for domestic emergencies. Those concerns have now been amplified by scenes of looting and disorder. There is also the added question of whether the Department of Homeland Security, designed primarily to fight terrorism, can cope with what Mr. Bush called Wednesday 'one of the worst natural disasters in our country's history.' "

Mary Curtius and Edwin Chen write in the Los Angeles Times: "Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast this week just as President Bush's public approval rating hit an all-time low. How he handles the aftermath of the monster storm could, in the short term, burnish the president's leadership image at a time when some problems uppermost in voters' minds -- including violence in Iraq and high gasoline prices -- seem unsolvable.

"But public impatience with the pace of recovery or painful economic fallout from the storm that spreads across the country also loom as potential political menace."

Here is the text of Bush's remarks yesterday.

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek.com: "From the moment Katrina set aim for the Gulf Coast, White House officials have had two other storms on their minds: last year's devastating tsunami, to which Bush was criticized for responding too slowly, and the political turmoil that Bush faces here at home over the war and the economy. . . .

"As Bush returns to Washington to deal with Katrina's aftermath, it's a chance for him to look presidential and to briefly turn public attention from a troubled war to the homefront. . . .

"[But] the Bush administration faces some immediate, urgent challenges -- and serious questions about its response to the disaster. For all the president's statements ahead of the hurricane, the region seemed woefully unprepared for the flooding of New Orleans -- a catastrophe that has long been predicted by experts and politicians alike. There seems to have been no contingency planning for a total evacuation of the city, including the final refuges of the city's Superdome and its hospitals. There were no supplies of food and water ready offshore -- on Navy ships for instance -- in the event of such flooding, even though government officials knew there were thousands of people stranded inside the sweltering and powerless city."

Ron Fournier writes for the Associated Press: "Cutting short his vacation and marshaling the power of the federal government could help reverse his sliding job approval rating. But the president's hands-on approach seems a bit too political for some, and makes him an easy target should Katrina's victims start looking for somebody to blame during the long, costly road to recovery.

"In purely political terms, the question is whether Bush can live up to the tough, can-do reputation he cultivated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Or whether he falls short of expectations and pays a political price, as his father did after Hurricane Andrew slammed Florida in 1992."

Incidentally, Bush said his in ABC interview this morning: "I hope people don't play politics at this time of a natural disaster the likes of which this country has never seen."

Does He Get It?

Perhaps the harshest critique of all is that Bush doesn't get it. And it's a critique coming from elements of both the left and right.

A New York Times editorial today says: "George W. Bush gave one of the worst speeches of his life yesterday, especially given the level of national distress and the need for words of consolation and wisdom. In what seems to be a ritual in this administration, the president appeared a day later than he was needed. He then read an address of a quality more appropriate for an Arbor Day celebration: a long laundry list of pounds of ice, generators and blankets delivered to the stricken Gulf Coast. He advised the public that anybody who wanted to help should send cash, grinned, and promised that everything would work out in the end. . . .

"Sacrifices may be necessary to make sure that all these things happen in an orderly, efficient way. But this administration has never been one to counsel sacrifice. And nothing about the president's demeanor yesterday -- which seemed casual to the point of carelessness -- suggested that he understood the depth of the current crisis."

National Review's Corner blog was full of harsh critiques yesterday. Rod Dreher wrote: "We don't need mere emoting. . . . But we do need our president to make an emotional connection of some sort with his suffering countrymen. You can be tough, competent AND emotional. It's called Giuliani 101."

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