The Gulf Between Rhetoric and Reality

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, September 2, 2005; 1:51 PM

On his tour of the devastated Gulf Coast today, President Bush runs smack into another kind of gulf -- one between what his administration says it is doing and what the American public is watching on television.

Will he show true compassion, comprehension and leadership today by wading -- literally and figuratively -- among those who are still suffering? Or will it be a series of hermetically sealed photo ops?

Bush is under intense pressure to refute the growing criticism that his reaction to the disaster has been lackadaisical and ineffective. What's not clear is whether that means his aides will abandon their typically meticulous approach to stage-managing every presidential appearance -- or whether, in fact, they will embrace it more than ever.

Stay tuned.

So Far Today

In his first public appearance today, on the White House lawn , Bush acknowledged for the first time: "The results are not acceptable."

He then headed off to Mobile, Ala., his first stop.

"I'm looking forward to my trip down there, and looking forward to thanking those on the ground, and looking forward to assure people that we'll get on top of this situation and we're going to help people that need help," he said in Washington.

But somewhere along the way Bush apparently decided to sound a little more glum about his outing.

"I'm not looking forward to this trip," he said in Mobile.

Bush in a Pinch

Matthew Cooper writes in Time: "September 11, 2001 is remembered as Bush's finest hour but of course the day was anything but. He sat frozen in a Florida school after being informed of the attack, flew around the country, at first sending Karen Hughes to reassure a worried nation before he made a statement from an Air Force base while a macho Donald Rumsfeld helped carry stretchers out of a burning Pentagon. By the time Bush got back to the Oval Office that night to address the nation, his response had paled compared to that of Rudolph Giuliani. . . .

"This time, Bush has been just as flatfooted. He couldn't seem to break off his schedule in San Diego, where he was commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory over Japan, while New Orleans filled like a bathtub. His remarks to the country from the Rose Garden yesterday about the Katrina disaster seemed oddly terse; his litany of aid meaningless without context. . . . And his interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC News seemed weirdly out of touch. His smirk came back . . . [he] said things that seemed patently out of touch, including the now-infamous remark that no one could have foreseen the levee breaking. His inability to see any moral distinction between those who steal water and those who loot TV sets seemed odd. . . .

"The Battle of New Orleans may yet be a cataclysmic event that scuttles Bush's political agenda. . . . But Bush's career is all about people underestimating him and it would be a mistake to do so this time."

Indeed, Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times that the White House thinks the political furor may backfire against Bush's critics.

" 'Seventy-two hours into this, to be openly posturing about this, to be attacking the president, is not only despicable and wrong, it's not politically smart,' said one White House official who asked not to be named because he did not want to be seen as talking about the crisis in political terms. 'Normal people at home understand that it's not the president who's responsible for this, it's the hurricane. This will get better, hour by hour and day by day.' "

About the Slow Response

Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post that "a growing number of Democrats are pointing to stalled relief efforts, substandard flood protection systems and the slow pace of getting military personnel to the hardest-hit areas as evidence of a distracted government.

" 'It is hard to say, but it is true: There was a failure by [Bush] to meet the responsibility here,' said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). 'Somebody needs to say it.' "

Josh White and Peter Whoriskey write in The Washington Post: "Tens of thousands of people remain stranded on the streets of New Orleans in desperate conditions because officials failed to plan for a serious levee breach and the federal response to Hurricane Katrina was slow, according to disaster experts and Louisiana government officials. . . .

"Rep. Charles W. Boustany Jr., (R-La.), said he spent the past 48 hours urging the Bush administration to send help. 'I started making calls and trying to impress upon the White House and others that something needed to be done,' he said. 'The state resources were being overwhelmed, and we needed direct federal assistance, command and control, and security -- all three of which are lacking.' . . .

"Michael D. Brown, FEMA's director, offered an emphatic defense of the federal response, saying that his agency prepared for the storm but that the widespread, unexpected flooding kept rescuers out of the city. He urged the nation to 'take a collective deep breath' and recognize that federal officials are doing all they can to save people."

In the New York Times, Joseph B. Treaster and Deborah Sontag note some pungent criticism from Terry Ebbert, head of New Orleans's emergency operations. "Asserting that the whole recovery operation had been 'carried on the backs of the little guys for four goddamn days,' he said 'the rest of the goddamn nation can't get us any resources for security.'

" 'We are like little birds with our mouths open and you don't have to be very smart to know where to drop the worm,' Colonel Ebbert said. 'It's criminal within the confines of the United States that within one hour of the hurricane they weren't force-feeding us.' "

The Paper Trail

Bryan Bender writes in the Boston Globe: "The National Guard's scramble to bring aid and order to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is hamstrung by the fact that units across the country have, on average, half their usual amount of equipment -- helicopters, Humvees, trucks, and weapons -- on hand because much of it has been siphoned off to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to military officials and security specialists. . . .

"Meanwhile, in Louisiana and Mississippi, the states hit hardest by the hurricane, up to 40 percent of their National Guard troops are on active duty in Iraq. As a result, Guard commanders responding to the storm's havoc have been forced to look further afield for military police and other National Guard units and equipment from states as far away as Maryland, stealing precious time from the relief efforts."

VandeHei and Baker write in The Post: "President Bush repeatedly requested less money for programs to guard against catastrophic storms in New Orleans than many federal and state officials requested, decisions that are triggering a partisan debate over administration priorities at a time when the budget is strained by the Iraq war.

"Even with full funding in recent years, none of the flood-control projects would have been completed in time to prevent the swamping of the city, as Democrats yesterday acknowledged. But they said Bush's decision to hold down spending on fortifying levees around New Orleans reflected a broader shuffling of resources -- to pay for tax cuts and the Iraq invasion -- that has left the United States more vulnerable. . . .

" 'Flood control has been a priority of this administration from Day One,' said White House press secretary Scott McClellan, adding that the administration in recent years has dedicated a total of $300 million for flood control in the New Orleans area. Beyond that, he dismissed questions about specific projects as mere partisan sniping. 'This is not a time for finger-pointing or playing politics,' McClellan said."

Today's Visit

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush hopes his tour of Gulf Coast communities battered by Hurricane Katrina will boost the spirits of increasingly desperate storm victims and their tired rescuers.

"The president's visit Friday also was aimed at tamping down some of the criticism that he engineered a too-little, too-late response."

Bush's first stop is in Mobile, Ala., for a briefing, then an aerial tour of the damage in Alabama and Mississippi. He then takes a walking tour of Biloxi, followed by aerial tour of Louisiana hurricane damage. Before returning to the White House, he is scheduled to make a statement, around 4 p.m. EDT, at the New Orleans airport.

CNN reports that Bush has now added some sort of walking tour of New Orleans, but has no details.

White House Briefing reader Bill Galey e-mailed me a good question: "Is this the time the bubble finally fails? Dare the White House attempt to shelter POTUS from *real, actual survivors*?"

More on the Levees

I noted in yesterday's column that Bush, in his early-morning interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer, made a startlingly inaccurate assertion: "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."

Several editorials jumped on Bush's statement as a sign of Bush's floundering (see below), but the news columns of major newspapers were oddly silent.

One exception was a New York Times story by Scott Shane and Eric Lipton which used the quote to bolster the theory that "a crucial shortcoming" of the government response "may have been the failure to predict that the levees keeping Lake Pontchartrain out of the city would be breached, not just overflow."

But that's a technical distinction, and a fairly minor difference.

Mark Schleifstein, the environment writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, e-mailed me this morning: "For days in advance of this storm, everyone from the mayor of New Orleans to the governor to [National Hurricane Center Director] Max Mayfield gave a clear message: a Category 4 hurricane will overtop the levees. . . .

" Our series and the latest NWS software used by emergency planners throughout New Orleans indicate that even some Category 2 storms could put water over the levees in eastern New Orleans."

I'm also told by another source that the two levees that failed were first overtopped -- then they eroded from the interior and collapsed. Once water starts spilling over the top of a levee its structural integrity can no longer be guaranteed, apparently -- and the corps of engineers was aware of that possibility.

Tim Rutten writes in the Los Angeles Times that "the tragedy that this week destroyed a vibrant metropolitan area that was home to 1.4 million people and the city proper that was a national cultural treasure was not simply imagined but foreseen with a prescience that now seems eerily precise. . .

"Three years ago, New Orleans' leading local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, National Public Radio's signature nightly news program, 'All Things Considered,' and the New York Times each methodically and compellingly reported that the very existence of south Louisiana's leading city was at risk and hundreds of thousands of lives imperiled by exactly the sequence of events that occurred this week. All three news organizations also made clear that the danger was growing because of a series of public policy decisions and failure to allocate government funds to alleviate the danger.

"The Times-Picayune, in fact, won numerous awards for John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein's superbly conceived and executed five-part series -- that's right, five-part -- whose initial installment began with a headline reading: 'It's only a matter of time before south Louisiana takes a direct hit from a major hurricane. Billions have been spent to protect us, but we grow more vulnerable every day.' "

Opinion Watch

From a Washington Post editorial : "[H]ow could the government have been so unready for a crisis that was so widely predicted? It is simply not true, as Mr. Bush said yesterday, that nobody 'anticipated the breach of the levees.' In fact, experts inside and outside of government have issued repeated warnings for years about the city's unique topography and vulnerability, and those warnings were loudly and prominently echoed by the media both nationally and in Louisiana. How is it possible that city, state and federal authorities lacked an emergency plan that could be quickly activated?"

From a Paul Krugman op-ed in the New York Times: "At a fundamental level, I'd argue, our current leaders just aren't serious about some of the essential functions of government. They like waging war, but they don't like providing security, rescuing those in need or spending on preventive measures. And they never, ever ask for shared sacrifice.

"Yesterday Mr. Bush made an utterly fantastic claim: that nobody expected the breach of the levees. In fact, there had been repeated warnings about exactly that risk.

"So America, once famous for its can-do attitude, now has a can't-do government that makes excuses instead of doing its job. And while it makes those excuses, Americans are dying."

Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum put together a timeline that outlines "the fate of both FEMA and flood control projects in New Orleans under the Bush administration."

He concludes: "Actions have consequences. No one could predict that a hurricane the size of Katrina would hit this year, but the slow federal response when it did happen was no accident. It was the result of four years of deliberate Republican policy and budget choices that favor ideology and partisan loyalty at the expense of operational competence. It's the Bush administration in a nutshell."

A Dallas Morning News editorial asks: "Who is in charge? . . .

"President Bush, please see what's happening. The American people want to believe the government is doing everything it can do -- not to rebuild or to stabilize gas prices -- just to restore the most basic order. So far, they are hearing about Herculean efforts, but they aren't seeing them."

War and Piece blogger Laura Rozen writes: "If you were the President, wouldn't you consider sending one of your cabinet officials to be on the scene non stop as a sign of the administration's interest in what's going on? Wouldn't you want that person reporting to your White House war room round the clock about what's happening? Who's representing the White House in New Orleans? Who has been since Sunday?"

Thursday at the White House

Judy Keen writes for USA Today: "President Bush called on two former presidents Thursday -- his father and Bill Clinton -- to lead a fundraising effort for Hurricane Katrina's victims."

Here's the text of Bush's remarks yesterday.

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday sought $10.5 billion from Congress as a first installment to fund the response to Hurricane Katrina and, in a rare request for individual sacrifice, asked Americans not to buy as much gasoline to address oil shortages caused by the storm. . . .

"Bush spent much of the day meeting with advisers, talking with lawmakers and consulting with economists, and he plans to fly to the region today to inspect the damage. . . .

"With the Gulf of Mexico oil industry effectively shuttered and gasoline prices rising to unprecedented heights, Bush seemed particularly focused on the potential for nationwide economic instability."

Bush's most quotable sound bite -- "Don't buy gas if you don't need it" -- was somewhat reminiscent of the urging by a sweater-attired President Jimmy Carter during the energy crisis of the late '70s to turn down thermostats.

The Briefing

Here's the text of spokesman Scott McClellan's briefing yesterday.

As Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank writes: "McClellan may have set a record yesterday for punts in a single briefing. Some excerpts:

"Q: What's the latest estimates of the damage caused by the hurricane?

"A: There's going to be an operational update later today by Secretary Chertoff. That might be a place to direct that question.

"Q: We've heard a number of reports about crime deterring people from making rescues. . . . Can you, sort of, set the record straight on what you're hearing?

"A: No, I think that the best place to ask that question is going to be at the briefing at 1:30 or the briefing later today by FEMA officials. . . .

"Eventually, ABC News's Jessica Yellin protested: 'Message boards on the Internet are going crazy. They're frustrated that you're deflecting this to FEMA. Is the White House properly, adequately concerned?'

" 'Deflecting what to FEMA?' McClellan asked."

Milbank concludes: "With each hot potato passed Chertoff's way, McClellan was suggesting the homeland security secretary would be the one to blame if recovery efforts don't go well."

Poll Watch

CBS News reports that "concern and a worsening perception of the war in Iraq appear to have dragged President Bush's approval rating down to 41 percent, matching the lowest level ever seen in this poll."

Among the findings: "Given a choice, Americans would at least decrease the number of troops in Iraq; nearly three in ten would remove all of them now."

Credibility is a problem: Only 29 percent agree that when Bush talks about Iraq, he is describing the situation accurately.

As for those gas prices: "American oil companies and oil producing countries get the most blame for rising gas and oil prices, with two in five Americans placing a lot of blame on them.

"But many also blame President Bush and the Iraq war. Just under one-third place a lot of blame on Bush and the war in Iraq, and an additional two in five blame them some." Even more perilously for the White House, contrary to Bush's avowals, 63 percent say gas prices are "something a president can do a lot about."

Will Lester writes for the Associated Press: "Americans are worried about fast-rising gasoline prices and want President Bush and Congress to make that their top domestic priority, according to an AP-Ipsos poll.

Here are the results . Among them: 65 percent are not confident Bush will be able to handle the gas-price issue effectively.

Cheney Watch

Vice President Cheney, who had been spending part of August at his home in Wyoming, returned to Washington yesterday, his spokeswoman, Lea Anne McBride, tells me.

Before Congress Returned

Ken Thomas writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush has used a constitutional provision to bypass the Senate and fill a top Justice Department slot with an official whose nomination stalled over tactics at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, naval facility."

Rove Visits Camp Casey, Sort Of

The Brad Blog has a Karl Rove scoop: It turns out that Rove borrowed Bush's pickup truck and "made a surprise sunset visit/photo-op Tuesday night to the half dozen or so Bush supporters camped across the street from 'Camp Casey' in Crawford, Texas where Cindy Sheehan -- whose son, Casey, was killed in Iraq -- originally made her stand requesting a meeting and an explanation from George W. Bush. . . .

"Rove laughed, greeted and thanked those who came to Crawford to attack a mother who'd lost her son in the cause of George W. Bush's unexplained 'noble cause.' "

The Bush Family and the War

Terry Neal writes on washingtonpost.com that bloggers have raised a legitimate question: "If the sacrifice is so noble, has the president urged his own children, or enlistment-age nieces and nephews -- of which there are eight -- to join the military and fight in Iraq?

"I called the White House to pose this question and was somewhat surprised to learn that none of the supposed liberal baddies in the White House press corps had ever asked the president or any of his spokespersons that question.

"Spokeswoman Dana Perino couldn't find that this question had ever been asked. She said she'd have to check and call back. And she did later Tuesday afternoon with this prepared statement: 'There are many ways for people to serve their country and to help make the world a better freer and more peaceful place. The president is grateful to all of those who have answered the call to service whether it's in the military or in another capacity and members of his family have done both.' "

Neal concludes: "The president's children are grown and free to do what they want. It seems absurd to criticize them for not enlisting. But that's not the point, the war's critics say. The question is whether the president urged his daughters, or his other enlistment-age relatives, to join a cause he has described as noble. And the answer to that question is still unknown."

Lake George?

Blogger Wonkette yesterday launched a meme that is spreading through the liberal blogosphere: "A tipster informs us that down in New Orleans, they have a name for the flood waters that have invaded the city: Lake George."

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