Dealing With Political Disaster

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, September 6, 2005; 1:21 PM

President Bush somehow missed the significance of what was happening on the Gulf Coast last week as he and his political guru, Karl Rove, flitted between Texas and California and, finally, Washington.

But now, facing what is clearly a full-scale political disaster, Rove and a handful of other masterful political operatives have gone into overdrive. They are back in campaign mode.

This campaign is to salvage Bush's reputation.

Like previous Rove operations, it calls for multiple appearances by the president in controlled environments in which he can appear leader-like. It calls for extensive use of Air Force One and a massive deployment of spinners.

It doesn't necessarily include any change in policy. It certainly doesn't include any admission of error.

It utilizes the classic Rovian tactic of attacking critics rather than defending against their criticism -- and of throwing up chaff to muddle the issue and throw the press off the scent.

It calls for public expressions of outrage over the politicization of the issue and of those who would play the "blame game." While at the same time, it is utterly political in nature and heavily reliant on shifting the blame elsewhere.

But in some ways, this post-Katrina campaign poses Bush's aides with unprecedented challenges.

The problem -- an achingly slow federal response to what has turned out to be one of the greatest natural disasters this country has ever faced -- can be traced at least in part to one of the Bush White House's most defining characteristics: The protective bubble within which the president operates.

Bush's aides intentionally keep him mentally and physically aloof from any ugliness -- political or otherwise. It lets them keep tight control over the presidential imagery and stay on message.

But inside his bubble, Bush first failed to recognize what was becoming clear to almost anyone watching the news: That Americans needed help. And in his two meticulously staged visits to the Gulf Coast on Friday and Monday, it is precisely because Bush was kept so far away from dissension or mess that he appeared so out of touch.

He cracked jokes on Friday, including one about his drinking days in New Orleans, but has yet to confront the true horror of the situation so widely seen on TV. He has yet to acknowledge the disgrace of a major American city being rendered uninhabitable on his watch. He has yet to come face to face with people left to suffer for days in hellish conditions and explain to them why their government failed them. And he has yet to demonstrate the strength that Americans require from their president in a time of crisis.

This crisis finds the president looking impotent at best, incompetent at worst. And there is an element of whining to Bush's refusal to shoulder his responsibility -- especially should the press continue to make it clear how intensely he and his top aides are trying to pass the buck.

The men behind Bush's bubble are clearly hoping that their tried and true methods will serve them well yet again and that over time, Bush's reputation will recover.

But with every body removed from the attics of New Orleans over the coming weeks, America will remember the colossal failure of government to protect its people.

The Overviews

Here's Tim Russert talking to Matt Lauer on NBC's "Today Show" this morning: "Eventually, Matt, there has to be some level of accountability," Russert said. "Something terrible happened here. The fact is state, local and federal government did not protect its people. It's why governments were created. . . .

"Will Katrina and the stumbling of the federal government define his second term? That's why the president has to be bold and assertive in trying to correct that impression."

Newsweek asks: "What went wrong? Just about everything. How the system failed is a tangled story, but the basic narrative is becoming clearer: hesitancy, bureaucratic rivalries, failures of leadership from city hall to the White House and epically bad luck combined to create a morass. . . .

"Bush's many critics will say that the president was disengaged, on vacation, distracted by Iraq and insensitive to the needs of poor black people. The White House blames the magnitude of the storm itself, patchy information on the ground and a confused chain of command, according to a senior Bush aide who requests anonymity in order to speak freely about internal administration discussions. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. . . . Still, we expect more from a president."

Matthew Cooper writes in Time magazine about Bush's second trip to the disaster zone: "It was better than his first on Friday. He didn't offer any untenable defenses of the federal response and he didn't say anything too off key like he did last time when he vowed to rebuild Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott's home and fondly recalled his partying days in New Orleans. . . .

"Still, his visit studiously avoided the hardest-hit areas of Katrina and the itinerary all but guaranteed that he'd be met with friendly audiences. The displaced persons he met at the Bethany World Church were well cared for and for the most part grateful for their surroundings. In Poplarville, Mississippi, Bush toured a middle class neighborhood where the damage seemed minimal. Homes were intact, although many pine trees were felled. But most seemed to have hit lawns and carports rather than causing real structural damage to homes. . . .

"Much of Bush's presidency has been built around keeping him away from unfriendly audiences. His campaign rallies were carefully screened and so are his policy events where he chews the fat about issues like Social Security. But that instinct surely can't be serving him well at a time when the country feels like a collective primal scream over seeing their countrymen left suffering."

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "The first week of September 2005 likely will be remembered as one of the most troubled weeks of George W. Bush's presidency, a time in which natural disaster combined with bureaucratic bungling in ways that threatened to inundate an administration already on the defensive.

"Even before Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast last Monday, Bush was buffeted by public dissatisfaction over the war in Iraq and consumer outrage over rising gasoline prices. But the federal government's widely criticized response to the hurricane's devastation in New Orleans and elsewhere turned a challenging environment into one that is potentially overwhelming. . . .

"Public opinion appears to have been shaped considerably by the partisan polarization that long has defined attitudes toward Bush. In part, Bush may be reaping some of the consequences of a governing style that has favored confrontation over conciliation, of appealing first and foremost to his conservative base rather than the country as a whole."

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The natural instinct of any administration is to circle the wagons when hit with the sort of criticism buffeting the White House over the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

"President Bush is probably even more resistant than most of his predecessors to admitting error or reexamining decisions. . . .

"But the national interest demands that the president now rise above that defensive crouch. After a week of despair, suffering and terrifying chaos in New Orleans, this is a moment for the president to be knocking heads, demanding answers and imposing changes throughout the federal government."

Todd S. Purdum writes in the New York Times: "Perhaps not since Richard M. Nixon faced Vietnam-era tumult abroad and at home has an American president had to meet quite the combination of foreign war, domestic tribulations and political division that President Bush now confronts, from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf Coast to Capitol Hill."

In USA Today, Judy Keen and Richard Benedetto have an account from a White House insider suggesting that Bush, after initially being patient, is now angry. Note, however, the utter lack of sourcing:

"Bush's patience with federal hurricane relief efforts evaporated last week when he learned that thousands had been stuck for days in the New Orleans Convention Center without food or water. By Saturday morning, when he and other officials met in the White House situation room for an update, the president was still steaming. He had seen the disaster in person and watched horrific scenes on TV. There was talk around the table that if this disaster was a dress rehearsal for response to a terrorist attack or other national security crisis, the federal government failed the test."

An example of the president's loss of patience: "Bush skipped his usual weekend biking outings and went to a Red Cross operations center in Washington on Sunday. His trip Monday was meant to underscore his concern. He'll visit again."

Keen and Benedetto also write: "In a flurry of e-mail exchanges late Saturday night when they learned about Chief Justice William Rehnquist's death, President Bush's top advisers debated -- after their most difficult week since 9/11 -- what calamity might be next."

The Political Campaign

Adam Nagourney and Anne E. Kornblut write in the New York Times: "Under the command of President Bush's two senior political advisers, the White House rolled out a plan this weekend to contain the political damage from the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina.

"It orchestrated visits by cabinet members to the region, leading up to an extraordinary return visit by Mr. Bush planned for Monday, directed administration officials not to respond to attacks from Democrats on the relief efforts, and sought to move the blame for the slow response to Louisiana state officials, according to Republicans familiar with the White House plan.

"The effort is being directed by Mr. Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, and his communications director, Dan Bartlett."

What took so long?

Some Republicans told the Times "that the normally nimble White House political operation had fallen short in part because the president and his aides were scattered outside Washington on vacation, leaving no one obviously in charge at a time of great disruption. Mr. Rove and Mr. Bush were in Texas, while Vice President Dick Cheney was at his Wyoming ranch.

"Mr. Bush's communications director, Nicolle Devenish, was married this weekend in Greece, and a number of Mr. Bush's political advisers -- including Ken Mehlman, the Republican National Committee chairman -- attended the wedding."

As Nagourney and Kornblut explain, Rove's job one is "to shift the blame away from the White House and toward officials of New Orleans and Louisiana who, as it happens, are Democrats."

That started on Saturday.

Manuel Roig-Franzia and Spencer Hsu wrote in Sunday's Washington Post: "Bush, who has been criticized, even by supporters, for the delayed response to the disaster, used his weekly radio address to put responsibility for the failure on lower levels of government. The magnitude of the crisis 'has created tremendous problems that have strained state and local capabilities,' he said. 'The result is that many of our citizens simply are not getting the help they need, especially in New Orleans. And that is unacceptable.' "

One "senior Bush official" went so far as to assert that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco still had not declared a state of emergency as of Saturday -- a charge so inaccurate that The Post was forced to run a correction.

Elisabeth Bumiller and Adam Nagourney wrote in Sunday's New York Times: "In a sign of the mounting anxiety at the White House, Mr. Bush made a rare Saturday appearance in the Rose Garden before live television cameras. . . .

"As Mr. Bush spoke, Vice President Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, the president's senior political adviser, listened on the sidelines, as did Dan Bartlett, the counselor to the president and Mr. Bush's overseer of communications strategy. Their presence underscored how seriously the White House is reacting to the political crisis it faces."

Jim VandeHei wrote in Sunday's Washington Post: "Louisiana officials pushed back hard against the White House yesterday, sharply criticizing President Bush for offering a tentative and insufficient response to the obliteration of New Orleans and then trying to shift the blame to the state and local governments.

"Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) accused Bush of failing to fund efforts to fortify the levee protecting New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit, and of failing to send troops, supplies and other assistance quickly enough in Katrina's aftermath. 'Would the president please stop taking photo-ops, and please come and see what I'm trying to show him?' Landrieu asked on ABC's 'This Week.' She threatened to 'punch' Bush or anyone else who criticizes the response of the local sheriffs, one day after administration officials blamed state and local authorities for missteps in relief and rescue efforts."

Scott Shane writes for the New York Times: "As the Bush administration tried to show a more forceful effort to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, government officials on Sunday escalated their criticism and sniping over who was to blame for the problems plaguing the initial response. . . .

" 'We wanted soldiers, helicopters, food and water,' said Denise Bottcher, press secretary for Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana. 'They wanted to negotiate an organizational chart.' "

Busy Labor Day

Bush made three public appearances in the Gulf Coast area yesterday -- all inland, far from the worst damage.

Here are Bush's remarks at a shelter at Bethany World Church in Baton Rouge; at an emergency operations center in Baton Rouge, and while visiting with residents in Poplarville, Miss.

"I understand. I understand the damage. I understand the devastation. I understand the destruction. I understand how long it's going to take. And we're with you. That's what I want you to know," he told the residents of Poplarville.

Will Lester writes for the Associated Press: "Since his return to Washington last week, Bush hasn't gone a day without a public event devoted to the storm and its devastation. . . .

"During a stop at Bethany World Prayer Center in Baton Rouge, several people ran up to meet Bush as he and first lady Laura Bush wandered around the room. But just as many hung back and looked on.

" 'I need answers,' said Mildred Brown, who has been at the center since Tuesday with her husband, mother-in-law and cousin. 'I'm not interested in hand-shaking. I'm not interested in photo ops.' "

Nicole Bode, Paul H.B. Shin and Tracy Connor write in the New York Daily News: "Wayne Johnson, 40, who sought shelter at Bethany with 30 members of his extended family, said he shook the President's hand. But he was unable to shake the feeling that New Orleans had been forsaken by the feds at its darkest hour.

" 'They should have had all forces roll in Tuesday night. A lot of people felt betrayed. Once the hurricane hit, it was like, 'You're on your own.' "

Bush's "choice of an inland destination didn't sit well with the newly homeless along the coastline, where entire neighborhoods were washed away.

" 'If you see Bush, tell him to stop by because I'd like to tell him a few things,' said Elsie Hutto, 70, whose Gulfport, Miss., home was ruined."

Elisabeth Bumiller and Clyde Haberman write in the New York Times: "Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said Mr. Bush did not go to New Orleans yesterday because he had visited it on Friday. On that visit, however, he did not go to the Superdome or the convention center, where tens of thousands of largely poor and black victims had been desperate for food and water for days, and some older evacuees had died in their wheelchairs. Mr. Bush did speak at the New Orleans airport and visit the repair work under way at the 17th Street Canal, where he met with workers, some of whom had lost their homes.

"Mr. McClellan also said Mr. Bush steered clear of New Orleans yesterday because he did not want to disrupt continuing relief efforts."

Photo Op Friday

So did the president disrupt relief efforts on his Friday trip? And were they scrambled to make pretty pictures for the press?

From a statement by Sen. Landrieu about Bush's trip to New Orleans on Friday: "[P]erhaps the greatest disappointment stands at the breached 17th Street levee. Touring this critical site yesterday with the President, I saw what I believed to be a real and significant effort to get a handle on a major cause of this catastrophe. Flying over this critical spot again this morning, less than 24 hours later, it became apparent that yesterday we witnessed a hastily prepared stage set for a Presidential photo opportunity; and the desperately needed resources we saw were this morning reduced to a single, lonely piece of equipment."

And Michelle Krupa writes in the New Orleans Times-Picayune: "Three tons of food ready for delivery by air to refugees in St. Bernard Parish and on Algiers Point sat on the Crescent City Connection bridge Friday afternoon as air traffic was halted because of President Bush's visit to New Orleans, officials said."

Today's Calendar

More White House events on storm relief are planned for today, including meetings with Cabinet secretaries and representatives of volunteer organizations.

John D. McKinnon and Joi Preciphs write in the Wall Street Journal: "Even as it acknowledged that many poor, mostly black residents are feared to have died in the storm and its aftermath, the Bush administration was scheduling a cabinet meeting for today to map out the federal government's long-term strategy for restoring victims' shattered communities and lives, a senior White House aide said."

Bush spoke to the cameras after his 10 a.m. Cabinet meeting, where among other things he announced that he is sending Vice President Cheney down to the Gulf Coast to report back on progress.

He is to make a statement this afternoon in the Rose Garden about efforts to help students displaced by the hurricane, and later on meets with congressional leaders in the Oval Office.

Biloxi Blues

Here is some CNN video from Bush's visit to Biloxi.

Bush strides up to two African American women, who are sisters. Hovering nearby is a white guy wearing shades and shorts.

With the cameras rolling, Bush hugs the two women, one of whom starts sobbing.

Here's a partial transcript:

Bush to women: "There's a Salvation Army center that I want to, that I'll tell you where it is, and they'll get you some help. I'm sorry . . . They'll help you. . . . "

Woman 1: "I came here looking for clothes. . . . "

Bush: "They'll get you some clothes, at the Salvation Army center. . . . "

Woman 1: "We don't have anything. . . . "

Bush: "I understand. . . . Do you know where the center is, that I'm talking to you about?"

Guy with shades: "There's no center there, sir, it's a truck."

Bush: "There's trucks?"

Guy: "There's a school, a school about two miles away. . . . "

Bush: "But isn't there a Salvation center down there?"

Guy: "No that's wiped out. . . . "

Bush: "A temporary center?"

Guy: "No sir they've got a truck there, for food."

Bush: "That's what I'm saying, for food and water."

Bush then turns to the woman who's been saying how she needs clothes and tells her: "You need food and water."

Roberts Watch

Here is the text of Bush's announcement of his nomination of John Roberts to be chief justice of the United States.

Ron Fournier writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush chose the path of least resistance in nominating John Roberts as chief justice, acting with unusual haste as the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina sap his political strength. He was the safest choice Bush could make."

Bush had initially nominated Roberts to succeed Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, but made the switch less than 36 hours after the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Peter Baker writes in the Washington Post: "In elevating Roberts, Bush chose the candidate most likely to be confirmed in short order by the Senate, which was poised to ratify the appeals court judge for O'Connor's seat."

Baker notes that Roberts, "at age 50, would be the youngest chief justice since John Marshall was appointed in 1801, potentially giving him decades to shape the court's direction. . . .

"But in shifting Roberts to the center chair, Bush now must find someone else to replace O'Connor, in some ways an even more consequential choice because she cast the swing vote on issues such as affirmative action, abortion and the death penalty for many years. . . .

"Bush always had Roberts in mind for the next chief justice, aides said yesterday."

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "In choosing Judge Roberts to be chief justice at a sensitive political time, Mr. Bush avoided the fiery ideological fight that would have been ignited had he chosen to elevate Justice Antonin Scalia, a favorite of many conservatives, or turned to a sitting federal judge with a clearer and more extensive conservative record of opinions on social issues than Judge Roberts has. . . .

"Having essentially moved to swap one reliable conservative for another in the chief justice's seat, the president now faces what is likely to be a much more intense battle to replace Justice O'Connor, a swing voter on abortion and other contentious issues. But the political climate Mr. Bush faces now is very different from the one in July, when he first moved to fill Justice O'Connor's seat."

Barbara Bush Watch

Bill Hutchinson writes in the New York Daily News: "To President Bush's mother, everything is turning out hunky-dory for the New Orleans evacuees who lost everything."

Editor and Publisher heard Mrs. Bush on NPR's Marketplace saying: "And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this -- this (she chuckles slightly) is working very well for them."

Flag Watch

Bush ordered flags to half-staff on Sunday twice over.

This order lowers flags until Sept. 20 in honor of the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

This order lowers flags until Sept. 13 as a mark of respect for Chief Justice Rehnquist.

Karl Rove Watch

Lori Montgomery writes in The Washington Post that Rove "is not legally entitled to the homestead deduction and property tax cap he's been getting on his Palisades home for the past 3 1/2 years.

"This week, the D.C. tax collector was alerted to the problem. And Rove agreed to reimburse the District for an estimated $3,400 in back taxes, city officials said. But now some Lone Star officials also are wondering about the place Rove calls home. . . .

"[A]s far as the locals know, the couple have never actually lived in either of two tiny rental cottages Rove claims as his residence on Texas voter registration rolls."

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