Demanding Answers

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, September 7, 2005; 1:27 PM

In the wake of a mortifyingly slow government response to the Gulf Coast disaster, the press is demanding answers from the White House with unprecedented vigor.

President Bush and his aides are refusing to provide them -- saying this is no time to play the "blame game."

But as a frustrated Terry Moran of ABC News put it yesterday, during the stonewalling marathon that passed for Scott McClellan's mid-day press briefing: "It's not a blame game. It's accountability! It's accountability!"

The White House press corps is sensing a political sea change caused by Katrina. Bush and his aides are finding it impossible to wave off the incontrovertible facts and heart-rending images emerging from the lake that was once a great American city. They're finding it harder to set the news agenda. And the scathing criticism is becoming increasingly bipartisan, freeing reporters from the obligation to make every White House story sound like one with two sides equally based in reality.

Bush may be paying the price for the years during which his rhetoric and reality have been at times irreconcilable. After all, this post-Katrina press awakening is not the result of reporters expressing their personal or political opinions so much as it is about their asking tough questions based on what they, and others, have seen with their own eyes.

Media Rising

Agence France Presse reports: "In the emotional aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, US television's often deferential treatment of government officials has been replaced by fiercely combative interviews and scathing commentary."

Alessandra Stanley writes in the New York Times that "after spending time with the storm refugees in the Superdome and the convention center in New Orleans, normally poised, placid TV reporters now openly deplore the government's failure to help the victims adequately. And their outrage, illustrated with hauntingly edited montages of weeping mothers, sickly children and dead bodies rotting on the street, traveled up the news division chain of command, from camera operators to anchors and across the spectrum from CNN to Fox. . . .

"It's the kind of combative coverage that Richard M. Nixon faced during Watergate, that Bill Clinton faced during his impeachment trial and that most presidents have endured sometime in their tenures. But ever since the Sept. 11 attacks, this president had been spared the harshest questioning - even with troops bogged down in Iraq, his White House news conferences have been so tame they are parodied by 'Saturday Night Live' and Jon Stewart."

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "This kind of activist stance, which would have drawn flak had it come from American reporters in Iraq, seemed utterly appropriate when applied to the yawning gap between mounting casualties and reassuring rhetoric. . . .

"Maybe, just maybe, journalism needs to bring more passion to the table -- and not just when cable shows are obsessing on the latest missing white woman."

In USA Today, Peter Johnson quotes Fordham University communications professor Paul Levinson: "The media rose to the occasion, shone their light on the desolation and the needy, and kept it focused there until the cavalry finally began to arrive."

Johnson writes that "some observers say that Katrina's media legacy may be a return to a post-Watergate-like era of tougher scrutiny of the federal government and public policy issues. . . .

"In Katrina, CNN 'learned from Jon Stewart how to use simple juxtaposition to make a point,' says New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen. 'Clip of a federal official explaining how no one anticipated the strength of the storm. Clip from the Weather Channel proving plenty of people did.'

(Here's an example from CNN.com of the juxtaposition of rhetoric and reality.)

Nick Madigan writes in the Baltimore Sun: "Journalists who typically adhere to a professional objectivity stepped into their sometimes neglected role as advocates for the voiceless and began excoriating the Bush administration for what many agreed was a poorly executed reaction to the disaster.

"In Biloxi, Miss., on Friday, as President Bush toured the region, he told a group of journalists, 'We're going to clean this mess up.' Still pointing to the future, Bush said, 'We're going to stabilize the situation and then get food and water.'

"Not satisfied with that, a reporter asked him why 'the richest country in the world can't get help to the people who need it.'

"Bush's reply - 'I'm satisfied with the response; I'm not satisfied with all the results' - left some of the media members perplexed, and they said so."

Matt Wells writes for the BBC that "good reporting lies at the heart of what is changing. . . .

"Amidst the horror, American broadcast journalism just might have grown its spine back, thanks to Katrina."

Reporter/blogger Russ Baker writes: "The magnitude of the Hurricane Katrina disaster and the media's astonished -- and astonishingly vigorous -- response puts in perspective how hard it has generally become, in this country, to deliver the unadorned, unapologetic truth. Indeed, for at least as long as George Bush has been in office, the great unspoken challenge for mainstream journalists has been to do one's job while keeping one's job."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET., taking your questions and comments . Don't be shy.

PR Blitz Continues

As part of the White House's new PR blitz (see yesterday's column ), Bush made not one , not two , but three separate appearances before the cameras yesterday to talk about the hurricane.

It was at the first, after a cabinet meeting, that he had this to say: "What I intend to do is lead a -- to lead an investigation to find out what went right and what went wrong. And I'll tell you why. It's very important for us to understand the relationship between the federal government, the state government and the local government when it comes to a major catastrophe. And the reason it's important is, is that we still live in an unsettled world. We want to make sure that we can respond properly if there's a WMD attack or another major storm. And so I'm going to find out over time what went right and what went wrong."

What Investigation?

After a few questions to Bush's spokesman about this investigation, however, it started to look an awful lot like a half-hearted stalling tactic.

As Michael Kranish writes in the Boston Globe: "By afternoon, however, McClellan seemed to shift the president's declaration, indicating that Bush himself would not be directly involved.

"The president 'will lead an effort to make sure that there is a thorough analysis,' McClellan said. McClellan did not answer basic questions about the investigation, such as whether it would be conducted by a White House task force or an independent review panel, which would probably be more critical.

"In any case, McClellan said, any investigation should come later because the White House is focused on the plight of the destitute victims in the ravaged areas of the Gulf Coast."

Anne E. Kornblut and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times: "For the first time since the hurricane hit, Mr. Bush met with leaders from both parties, capping a day of constant political attention to a crisis that has exposed fault lines within the Republican Party and threatens to overtake the entire Congressional agenda. Mr. Bush promised to lead an investigation into what went wrong, although a White House spokesman quickly qualified the statement, saying the inquiry would come later to avoid diverting resources from the recovery efforts. . . .

"Describing it as an 'analysis,' not an investigation, Mr. McClellan would not say whether the emergency failures would be examined by an independent commission, as the Sept. 11 attacks were, or even when the president wanted the process to start."

Scott the Pinata

Here's the eminently readable text of yesterday's briefing.

As blogger Wonkette put it: "To judge by today's White House briefing, Katrina is the new Rove." She was referring to a spate of belligerent briefings in July about White House adviser Rove's involvement in the leaking of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity.

But in fact yesterday's questioning was almost more reminiscent of the full-on lusty clamoring over Monica Lewinsky in the previous administration's briefing room.

Losing Control of the Story

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "The normally adept White House has had trouble settling on a message over the past week. Officials have condemned the 'blame game' even as they point fingers at state and local authorities. They have made public assertions -- that nobody anticipated a levee breach and that Louisiana did not declare a state of emergency -- that turned out to be flat wrong. Now, Bush is in the position of promising to lead an investigation but saying it's still a question of 'if things went wrong.' "

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "The Bush White House is known for its ability to remain in control of its message and image, sliding out of crises with barely a scratch. Not this time.

"Despite day after day of appearances by President Bush aimed at undoing the political damage from a poor response to Hurricane Katrina, the White House has not been able to regain its footing, already shaken by the war in Iraq and a death toll exceeding 1,880."

Loven recounts a series of administration blunders, then quotes White House counselor Dan Bartlett saying the president and his aides are unconcerned for now about the unrelenting criticism.

Craig Gordon writes for Newsday: "White House officials had been looking to Sunday's fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks to change the subject from Iraq and other bad news. Instead, a sort of second-term 9/11 landed on the Gulf Coast, and Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina has created a moment of political peril that threatens to erode his already-weakened standing among voters and reshape his legislative agenda."

About That Agenda

Susan Page writes in USA Today: "His plan to overhaul Social Security? Forget it. Repeal the estate tax? Postponed. Make the 2001 tax cuts permanent? Tougher to finance. Stay the course in Iraq? Questions about the deployment of U.S. resources and National Guard troops for the war have been sharpened. . . .

"[A]fter five years in charge, Bush is being called to account for shortcomings in the administration in a way he wasn't when he was new to office. There is little sense, as there was after 9/11, that criticizing the president is unpatriotic. . . .

"The most fundamental issue ahead may be this: Four years after the Sept. 11 attacks, despite the president's unrelenting focus and the expenditure of billions of dollars for homeland security, the government seemed unable to respond to a crisis that had been forecast days before it happened."

Here's an Option

John Dickerson writes in Slate: "So, what can Bush do to reverse the focus on his own failure? His own sunny optimism, which even he seemed to find unsatisfying, is unlikely to help at this point. . . .

"[I]f the president really wants to turn around the perception that he's failed, he has a better option than belated hyperactivity and spin: Bush should put his own prestige on the line by appearing in an unscripted public forum to answer questions about the government's response to the disaster. He should schedule a press conference, or, better yet, a town hall meeting with residents."

Congress Watch

The Associated Press reports: "House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi says she's told President Bush he should fire Michael Brown.

"She says the Gulf Coast was hit with two disasters last week. First came Hurricane Katrina, then the response of Brown's Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"Pelosi spoke to reporters after the president met with congressional leaders. Asked for his Bush's response, she said, 'The president thanked me for my suggestion.' "

Ed Henry told Aaron Brown on CNN about a contentious meeting on Capitol Hill last night between members of Congress and Cabinet officials.

"We're told that those Cabinet secretaries started out by giving relatively rosy reports about how things are turning out for the better, things are getting better all the time. The first question came from a Republican, not a Democrat. And I'm told that this Republican lawmaker stood up and basically said, all of you deserve failing grades, despite what you're saying right now. The response was a disaster."

Henry notes "Republican leaders are starting to really circle the wagons," however.

Poll Watch

Agence France Presse reports: "Forty-two percent of Americans said US President George W. Bush has handled Hurricane Katrina badly while 35 percent thought he has performed well, according to a Gallup poll just published."

Here's the report from the Gallup Organization .

Asked how good a job Bush did responding to hurricane, 10 percent said great; 25 percent said good; 21 percent said neither good nor bad; 18 percent said bad and 24 percent said terrible.

Also: 79 percent believe the gas companies are taking advantage of the situation and charging unfair prices

Props for Bush

Blogger Josh Marshall calls attention to this Salt Lake Tribune story by Lisa Rosetta about firefighters assembled from throughout the United States by FEMA, thinking they were going to be deployed as emergency workers.

"Instead, they have learned they are going to be community-relations officers for FEMA. . . .

"Firefighters say they want to brave the heat, the debris-littered roads, the poisonous cottonmouth snakes and fire ants and travel into pockets of Louisiana where many people have yet to receive emergency aid.

"But as specific orders began arriving to the firefighters in Atlanta, a team of 50 Monday morning quickly was ushered onto a flight headed for Louisiana. The crew's first assignment: to stand beside President Bush as he tours devastated areas."

The Deepening Divide

Dan Balz writes in the Washington Post: "When terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001, Americans came together in grief and resolve, rallying behind President Bush in an extraordinary show of national unity. But when Hurricane Katrina hit last week, the opposite occurred, with Americans dividing along sharply partisan lines in their judgment of the president's and the federal government's response."

Today's Calendar

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "In a historic cathedral, President Bush and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor will lead the final tributes to William H. Rehnquist, the long-serving chief justice of the United States who charted the court's path toward conservatism."

Supreme Court Watch

Peter Baker and Jo Becker write in The Washington Post: "President Bush vowed yesterday to 'take a good, long look' at a 'wide open' list of candidates before deciding whom to nominate for a second open seat on the Supreme Court, as both sides girded for twin confirmation battles and recalibrated strategies after the dizzying events of recent days. . . .

"Complicating the picture is the political aftermath of Katrina, which analysts say has left Bush weakened amid recriminations over a slow, ineffectual initial response. Some analysts speculated that Bush might avoid a provocative conservative in favor of a less ideologically pure nominee, possibly [Attorney General Alberto R.] Gonzales. But White House advisers scoffed at the notion, suggesting that fundamentally misunderstands Bush's nature."

Richard W. Stevenson and Sheryl Gay Stolberg write in the New York Times that Bush " jokingly but pointedly singled out Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales. . . .

"It has never been clear how seriously Mr. Bush has considered Mr. Gonzales for the Supreme Court, and it was hard to tell if the president's remarks were calculated to send a signal or were simply a reflection of his sense of humor and his disdain for Washington guessing games."

Valerie Plame Watch

Christopher Lee writes in The Washington Post that "legal experts say prosecutors will have a hard time putting away anyone in the administration for violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act in the revelation of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity in 2003. . . .

"There is, however, another statute that federal officials have used to go after government leakers. Some legal experts say it is not out of the question that prosecutors in the Plame case could bring it out again -- although it, too, seems a long shot."

Barbara Bush Watch

The story about Barbara Bush's jaw-dropping comments about evacuees from New Orleans appears to be picking up steam.

The New York Times reports today: "As President Bush battled criticism over the response to Hurricane Katrina, his mother declared it a success for evacuees who 'were underprivileged anyway,' saying on Monday that many of the poor people she had seen while touring a Houston relocation site were faring better than before the storm hit. . . .

"White House officials did not respond on Tuesday to calls for comment on Mrs. Bush's remarks."

Agence France Presse reports that the comments "triggered a flood of negative messages on the Huffington Post, a popular left-leaning blog.

" 'Cold hearted witch,' read one of the more polite comments, signed by one IowaDem."

Karl Rove Watch

Lori Montgomery wrote in Saturday's Washington Post that Karl Rove has been illegally claiming a homestead deduction for his D.C. home, and she raised the possibility that he is guilty of voter fraud in Texas.

From a follow-up in The Washington Post story today: "Presidential adviser Karl Rove may live and pay taxes in Washington, but he's welcome to vote back home in Texas anytime he pleases, a spokesman for Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams said yesterday."

Late Night Humor

From "The Daily Show":

Ed Helms: "Jon, today, finally, a ray of hope. Eight days after Katrina came ashore, the federal government has gotten its act together, marshalling all of its resources in a desperate effort to save this beloved, and now beleaguered, president."

Stewart: "President? I thought you were talking about New Orleans."

Helms: "No, that place is [expletive]. But many here believe with quick action, George W. Bush's reputation can still be saved. . . .

"The main thing is, in a very reassuring sight, the federal government has finally brought in the heavy machinery: The Rove.

"Many believe he's the one man who can fix the gaping breach in the president's approval ratings."

Stewart: "But what impact will that have on the actual rescue effort?"

Helms: "The actual rescue effort? What is your obsession with the horrible humanitarian catastrophe?"

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