Now They Tell Us

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, September 12, 2005; 1:33 PM

Amid a slew of stories this weekend about the embattled presidency and the blundering government response to the drowning of New Orleans, some journalists who are long-time observers of the White House are suddenly sharing scathing observations about President Bush that may be new to many of their readers.

Is Bush the commanding, decisive, jovial president you've been hearing about for years in so much of the mainstream press?

Maybe not so much.

Judging from the blistering analyses in Time, Newsweek, and elsewhere these past few days, it turns out that Bush is in fact fidgety, cold and snappish in private. He yells at those who dare give him bad news and is therefore not surprisingly surrounded by an echo chamber of terrified sycophants. He is slow to comprehend concepts that don't emerge from his gut. He is uncomprehending of the speeches that he is given to read. And oh yes, one of his most significant legacies -- the immense post-Sept. 11 reorganization of the federal government which created the Homeland Security Department -- has failed a big test.

Maybe it's Bush's sinking poll numbers -- he is, after all, undeniably an unpopular president now. Maybe it's the way that the federal response to the flood has cut so deeply against Bush's most compelling claim to greatness: His resoluteness when it comes to protecting Americans.

But for whatever reason, critical observations and insights that for so long have been zealously guarded by mainstream journalists, and only doled out in teaspoons if at all, now seem to be flooding into the public sphere.

An emperor-has-no-clothes moment seems upon us.

Read All About It

The two seminal reads are from Newsweek and Time.

Evan Thomas's story in Newsweek is headlined: "How Bush Blew It."

"It's a standing joke among the president's top aides: who gets to deliver the bad news? Warm and hearty in public, Bush can be cold and snappish in private, and aides sometimes cringe before the displeasure of the president of the United States," Thomas writes.

In this sort of environment, Bush apparently didn't fathom the extent of the catastrophe in the Gulf Coast for more than three days after the levees of New Orleans were breached.

"The reality, say several aides who did not wish to be quoted because it might displease the president, did not really sink in until Thursday night. Some White House staffers were watching the evening news and thought the president needed to see the horrific reports coming out of New Orleans. Counselor Bartlett made up a DVD of the newscasts so Bush could see them in their entirety as he flew down to the Gulf Coast the next morning on Air Force One.

"How this could be -- how the president of the United States could have even less 'situational awareness,' as they say in the military, than the average American about the worst natural disaster in a century -- is one of the more perplexing and troubling chapters in a story that, despite moments of heroism and acts of great generosity, ranks as a national disgrace."

Among Thomas's disclosures: "Bush can be petulant about dissent; he equates disagreement with disloyalty. After five years in office, he is surrounded largely by people who agree with him. . . .

"Late last week, Bush was, by some accounts, down and angry. But another Bush aide described the atmosphere inside the White House as 'strangely surreal and almost detached.' At one meeting described by this insider, officials were oddly self-congratulatory, perhaps in an effort to buck each other up. Life inside a bunker can be strange, especially in defeat."

Mike Allen writes in Time: "Longtime Bush watchers say they are not shocked that he missed his moment -- one of his most trusted confidants calls him 'a better third- and fourth-quarter player,' who focuses and delivers when he sees the stakes. What surprised them was that he still appeared to be stutter-stepping in the second week of the crisis, struggling to make up for past lapses instead of taking control with a grand gesture. Just as Katrina exposed the lurking problems of race and poverty, it also revealed the limitations of Bush's rigid, top-down approach to the presidency. . . .

"Bush's bubble has grown more hermetic in the second term, they say, with fewer people willing or able to bring him bad news -- or tell him when he's wrong. Bush has never been adroit about this. A youngish aide who is a Bush favorite described the perils of correcting the boss. 'The first time I told him he was wrong, he started yelling at me,' the aide recalled about a session during the first term. 'Then I showed him where he was wrong, and he said, "All right. I understand. Good job." He patted me on the shoulder. I went and had dry heaves in the bathroom.' . . .

"The result is a kind of echo chamber in which good news can prevail over bad -- even when there is a surfeit of evidence to the contrary. For example, a source tells Time that four days after Katrina struck, Bush himself briefed his father and former President Clinton in a way that left too rosy an impression of the progress made. 'It bore no resemblance to what was actually happening,' said someone familiar with the presentation."

Allen has an exclusive look at the administration's "three-part comeback plan."

Part one: "Spend freely, and worry about the tab and the consequences later."

Part two: "Don't look back."

Part three: "Develop a new set of goals to announce after Katrina fades. Advisers are proceeding with plans to gin up base-conservative voters for next year's congressional midterm elections with a platform that probably will be focused around tax reform."

Allen also has this tidbit: "And as if the West Wing were suddenly snakebit, his franchise player, senior adviser and deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, was on the disabled list for part of last week, working from home after being briefly hospitalized with painful kidney stones."

And remember the storyline of the CEO president who cut red tape and streamlined government?

John Dickerson writes in Slate how the much-celebrated creation of the Homeland Security Department, the embodiment of Bush's management style, is suddenly an epic tale of failure.

"They built an enormous agency from scratch, vowing to create the kind of shiny, swiftly clicking apparatus they envisioned for the government as a whole. Judging by the DHS response to Katrina, we can breathe a sigh of relief that they didn't expand their bureaucracy vendetta further."

Dickerson describes an interview in which White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who masterminded the reorganization, "described the process of creation with delight: He leaned off the sofa and grinned as he spoke, giddy at having been able to pedal so quickly past the usual government roadblocks. The defenders of the bureaucracy were so virulent, he had to put together a small team and they took their blueprints and drafting tools into the secure bunker underneath the White House."

Dickerson concludes: "We now know the solution has failed. In the coming months we'll have a chance to learn just how, and in how many different ways, that bureaucracy-free, executive-authority-channeling machine sprang its wires, and whether the architects share the blame with the operators."

Poll Watch

Howard Fineman writes for Newsweek: "Katrina's winds have unspun the spin of the Bush machine, particularly the crucial idea that he is a commanding commander in chief. In the Newsweek Poll, only 17 percent of Americans say that he deserves the most blame for the botched early response to Katrina. But, for the first time, less than a majority -- 49 percent -- say he has 'strong leadership qualities,' down from 63 percent last year. That weakness, in turn, dragged down his job-approval rating -- now at 38 percent, his lowest ever -- as well as voters' sense of where the country is headed. By a 66-28 margin, they say they are 'dissatisfied,' by far the gloomiest view in the Bush years, and among the worst in recent decades."

Marcus Mabry has more from the Newsweek poll. "[M]ost Americans, 52 percent, say they do not trust the president 'to make the right decisions during a domestic crisis' (45 percent do). The numbers are exactly the same when the subject is trust of the president to make the right decisions during an international crisis. . . .

"The president and the GOP's greatest hope may be, ironically, how deeply divided the nation remains, even after national tragedy. The president's Republican base, in particular, remains extremely loyal. For instance, 53 percent of Democrats say the federal government did a poor job in getting help to people in New Orleans after Katrina. But just 19 percent of Republicans feel that way. In fact, almost half of Republicans (48 percent) either believes the federal government did a good job (37 percent) or an excellent job (11 percent) helping those stuck in New Orleans."

A new Time poll finds Bush at an all time low 42 percent approval rating, with 52 percent disapproving.

Time's poll is the second one recently to chart a significant drop in presidential approval among Republicans. (See Friday's column about Bush losing his base.)

Accord to Time, since January, Republican approval has dropped from 91 percent to 81 percent; Democratic approval from 25 to 13; and indpendent approval from 46 to 36.

And 61 percent of those polled favor paying for hurricane relief by cutting back spending in Iraq.

The Breakdown

Anna Mulrine writes in U.S. News: "Who screwed up?

"The president's spinners dubbed it the blame game, but given the loss of life, the staggering incompetence at nearly every level of government, and the increasingly dire economic implications for the nation, much more than the usual political one-upmanship is in the offing."

Susan B. Glasser and Michael Grunwald write in The Washington Post: "As the floodwaters recede and the dead are counted, what went wrong during a terrible week that would render a modern American metropolis of nearly half a million people uninhabitable and set off the largest exodus of people since the Civil War, is starting to become clear. Federal, state and local officials failed to heed forecasts of disaster from hurricane experts. Evacuation plans, never practical, were scrapped entirely for New Orleans's poorest and least able. And once floodwaters rose, as had been long predicted, the rescue teams, medical personnel and emergency power necessary to fight back were nowhere to be found."

Eric Lipton, Christopher Drew, Scott Shane and David Rohde all write in the New York Times that " an initial examination of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath demonstrates the extent to which the federal government failed to fulfill the pledge it made after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to face domestic threats as a unified, seamless force.

"Instead, the crisis in New Orleans deepened because of a virtual standoff between hesitant federal officials and besieged authorities in Louisiana, interviews with dozens of officials show. . . .

"Richard A. Falkenrath, a former homeland security adviser in the Bush White House, said the chief federal failure was not anticipating that the city and state would be so compromised. He said the response exposed 'false advertising' about how the government has been transformed four years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks."

The Los Angeles Times reports: "Ultimately, the National Response Plan says the president is in charge during a national emergency, but it leaves it up to the White House to decide how to fulfill that duty. 'The president leads the nation in responding effectively and ensuring the necessary resources are applied quickly and efficiently,' the plan says."

And here's a telling anecdote from the LA Times: "On Friday, Sept. 2, four days after the storm, Bush headed for the disaster area on a presidential trip designed to show leadership and concern.

"At a meeting that morning, one aide said, the president expressed anger about the convention center. Say that in public, one aide reportedly urged. So Bush went out to the Rose Garden and grimly acknowledged for the first time that all was not well. 'The results are not acceptable,' he said.

"But the president appeared uncomfortable even with that much self-criticism. A few hours later, in Biloxi, he softened the message. . . .

" 'I am satisfied with the [federal] response,' Bush said. 'I'm not satisfied with all the results. . . . I'm certainly not denigrating the efforts of anybody. But the results can be better.'

"And Bush, who instinctively defends any aide who has been criticized in the media, made a point of praising FEMA chief Brown.

" 'Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job,' he said."

Time magazine concludes: "Leaders were afraid to actually lead, reluctant to cost businesses money, break jurisdictional rules or spawn lawsuits. They were afraid, in other words, of ending up in an article just like this one."

Advancing Republican Goals

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "Republican leaders in Congress and some White House officials see opportunities in Hurricane Katrina to advance longstanding conservative goals like giving students vouchers to pay for private schools, paying churches to help with temporary housing and scaling back business regulation."

Jonathan Weisman and Amy Goldstein write in The Washington Post: "After the political tidal wave of 1994 swept conservatives into control of Congress, Republicans doggedly tried -- and repeatedly failed -- to repeal a Depression-era law that requires federal contractors to pay workers the prevailing wages in their communities. Eleven days after the deluge of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush banished the requirement, at least temporarily, with the stroke of his pen. . . .

"In another gain for the administration, a $51.8 billion relief bill that Congress passed on Thursday included a significant change to federal contracting regulations. Holders of government-issued credit cards will be allowed to spend up to $250,000 on Katrina-related contracts and purchases, without requiring them to seek competitive bids or to patronize small businesses or companies owned by minorities and women. Before Thursday, only purchases of up to $2,500 in normal circumstances or $15,000 in emergencies were exempt."

The Spoils of Disaster

Yochi J. Dreazen writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "The Bush administration is importing many of the contracting practices blamed for spending abuses in Iraq as it begins the largest and costliest rebuilding effort in U.S. history.

"The first large-scale contracts related to Hurricane Katrina, as in Iraq, were awarded without competitive bidding, and using so-called cost-plus provisions that guarantee contractors a certain profit regardless of how much they spend."

Reuters reports: "Companies with ties to the Bush White House and the former head of FEMA are clinching some of the administration's first disaster relief and reconstruction contracts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"At least two major corporate clients of lobbyist Joe Allbaugh, President George W. Bush's former campaign manager and a former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, have already been tapped to start recovery work along the battered Gulf Coast."

Bush's Trip

Bush is wrapping up a two-day "fact finding" trip to the Gulf Coast today. I'll have more about it tomorrow.

The big question: Will Bush risk an encounter with any angry storm victims?

As Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "One prominent African-American supporter of Mr. Bush who is close to Karl Rove, the White House political chief, said the president did not go into the heart of New Orleans and meet with black victims on his first trip there, last Friday, because he knew that White House officials were 'scared to death' of the reaction.

" 'If I'm Karl, do I want the visual of black people hollering at the president as if we're living in Rwanda?' said the supporter, who spoke only anonymously because he did not want to antagonize Mr. Rove."

One quick note from pool reporter Mark Silva of the Chicago Tribune: While Bush spent last night aboard the USS Iwo Jima, "poolers were assigned to bunks aboard luxury Prevost touring buses. Men in one, women in another. The men's bus is fresh off The Anger Management Tour, which had featured Fifty Cent and Eminem."

Brownie Watch

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times about just how it happened that White House spokesman Scott McClellan was still praising the work of Michael D. Brown, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, hours after Brown's removal from day-to-day management of the hurricane was pretty much a done deal.

Sanger writes that "how the White House moved, in a matter of days, from the president's praise of a man he nicknamed 'Brownie' to a rare public reassignment explains much about fears within the administration that its delayed response to the disaster could do lasting damage to both Mr. Bush's power and his legacy. But more important to some members of the administration, it dented the administration's aura of competence. . . .

"Mr. Bush, his aides acknowledge, is loath to fire members of his administration or to take public actions that are tantamount to an admission of a major mistake. But the hurricane was different, they say: the delayed response was playing out every day on television, and Mr. Brown, fairly or unfairly, seemed unaware of crucial events, particularly the scenes of chaos and death in the New Orleans convention center."

Race and Poverty

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "Hurricane Katrina has thrust the twin issues of race and poverty at President Bush, who faces steep challenges in dealing with both because of a domestic agenda that envisions deep cuts in long-standing anti-poverty programs and relationships with many black leaders frayed by years of mutual suspicion."

Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "From the political perspective of the White House, Hurricane Katrina destroyed more than an enormous swath of the Gulf Coast. The storm also appears to have damaged the carefully laid plans of Karl Rove, President Bush's political adviser, to make inroads among black voters and expand the reach of the Republican Party for decades to come. . . .

"But behind the scenes in the West Wing, there has been anxiety and scrambling -- after an initial misunderstanding, some of the president's advocates say, of the racial dimension to the crisis."

What the President Meant to Say

At another contentious briefing on Friday, McClellan addressed Bush's infamous declaration on a live television interview Thursday that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."

"What the President was referring to is that you had Hurricane Katrina hit, and then it passed New Orleans. And if you'll remember, all the media reports, or a number of media reports at that time, that Monday -- even all the way to the Tuesday papers, were talking to people and saying that New Orleans had dodged a bullet. So I think that's what the President is referring to, is that people weren't anticipating those levees, after the hurricane had passed New Orleans, breaching. Many people weren't. And you can go back and look at the news coverage at that time."

Internet Humor

Robin Abcarian writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In the picture , residents of New Orleans make their way through waist-deep water as President Bush stands next to his father, grinning and displaying a striped bass that he's just caught. 'Bush's vacation' is the caption of the photographic gag that has made its way around the Internet this week.

"In another doctored photo , the president strums a guitar and appears to be serenading a weeping African American woman holding a baby in front of the Louisiana Superdome.

"Perverse though it might seem, the juxtaposition of Hurricane Katrina's human costs with the perceived sluggishness of the federal government's response has proved to be a boon for political humorists -- particularly those operating in cyberspace, where dissemination is instantaneous."

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