Can't Win for Losing?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, September 28, 2005; 12:42 PM

White House aides have apparently been expressing their frustration to members of the press corps, saying President Bush just can't win with them: When he doesn't pay a visit after a disaster, he gets criticized for being heartless; when he does, he get criticized for getting in the way (and wasting gas). Sounds like the White House has a point there, doesn't it?

But it's not that simple. And as is often the case with this White House, the problem is that no one is asking the right questions.

The right question in this case is not whether Bush should or shouldn't visit disaster sites. The right questions are: 1) Does he fully grasp the human tragedy?; and 2) Are his trips helping the recovery or not?

Bush is obviously distressed to some degree by the devastation and the slow government response. Yesterday, he acknowledged that the region is "hurtin'." And two weeks ago, he accepted responsibility for the (unspecified) federal government failures in the wake of Katrina.

But the relative lack of emotion in his remarks raises the possibility that he doesn't fully appreciate the sense of loss experienced by countless thousands of Gulf Coast residents.

And he has yet to express anything like the sense of horror that I think it's safe to say most Americans felt while watching the televised images, day after day, of fellow citizens in desperate need waiting in vain for their government to come to their aid. So the jury's still out on whether he's troubled -- at least as much as the rest of us.

And are his visits helping the recovery? Obviously, they are in large part photo opportunities, meticulously staged to telegraph the image of the president as an involved, caring, hands-on leader -- and in so doing, offset the free-fall in his poll numbers.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that they don't have any other value. Has he, for instance, learned anything on these trips that he's taken to heart? Has he made any decisions based specifically on what he's observed or heard? If so, what are they?

Do residents of the disaster zones in general feel reassured -- or annoyed -- by his visits? And what about the people he meets with? Do they feel inconvenienced and used -- or honored and heartened -- by the presence of the president of the United States? Are they ultimately glad he came? (And are people who wouldn't be so positive kept at bay?) It seems to me those are answerable questions. And we should try to get some of the answers.


Meanwhile, the debate over Bush's post-hurricane conduct has taken a trivial tack. The big scandal: That he's wasting gas.

But that's not a big scandal. That's a sideshow. And even if it makes Bush look a bit hypocritical in light of his new call for energy conservation, White House aides must be delighted to see the previous elements of the debate -- questioning Bush's competence, his leadership, his dismal approval ratings and his shattered second-term agenda -- overshadowed by a much less toxic journalistic obsession.

William Bunch writes in the Philadelphia Daily News: "Just one day after President Bush urged Americans to cut back on needless travel and promised that the federal government would do the same, he boarded Air Force One yesterday for a trip to inspect hurricane damage that will burn through roughly 11,437 gallons of jet fuel, worth about $24,590 at today's record high fuel prices.

"In fact, an investigation by the Daily News - using the best available numbers for Bush's travel since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, for the performance of Air Force One and for jet fuel prices - estimates that Bush's hurricane travel has cost $169,314 for jet fuel alone. . . .

"After the president was criticized for merely flying over the Gulf region at the height of the post-Katrina chaos, he traveled to New Orleans or Mississippi three times in 10 days. The third time, the main purpose was to use historic Jackson Square as a backdrop for an address to the nation. Each New Orleans jaunt was roughly 2,176 miles and cost $19,977.

"On Sept. 23, Bush flew to Colorado Springs to see the military command post for monitoring Hurricane Rita. The meeting, which was shown on national TV on a tape delay, was one that seemed to be a candidate for videoconferencing. Bush's flight to Colorado cost an estimated $24,606 for jet fuel."

And the press just couldn't get enough of the White House's own energy-conserving moves, announced by spokesman Scott McClellan in his first gaggle yesterday.

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "On Monday morning, President Bush called on all Americans to conserve gasoline by driving less. By Tuesday morning, he had come up with some specific advice for his White House staff: take the bus.

"And that was just the beginning. The president also directed his staff members to turn down the air-conditioning; scale back nonessential travel; turn off copiers, computers and printers at night; form carpools; and use public transportation."

Blogger Wonkette weighed in with this observation: "These measures aren't meaningless, of course, they're just trivial. Even worse: They were supposedly enacted in 2001, proudly announced in a statement on the " White House Energy Savings Plan." So, you know, keep turning out those lights. The only real difference in this year's conservation measures is the promise to consider shortening the press motorcade, which this White House can hardly consider a sacrifice."

Side Note

Did Bush on Monday really call for a new era of energy conservation to bring down high gas prices and reduce dependence on fossil fuels? You might think so judging from some of the press coverage.

But look at what Bush actually said on Monday.

Bush was talking very specifically about how Hurricane Rita, on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, had affected the distribution of gasoline and that the administration had relaxed a handful of rules to minimize any disruptions. And he spoke about some problems getting gas to retailers in Houston.

It was in that very specific context that he ad libbed the following:

"[W]e can all pitch in by using -- by being better conservers of energy. I mean, people just need to recognize that the storms have caused disruption and that if they're able to maybe not drive when they -- on a trip that's not essential, that would [be] helpful. The federal government can help, and I've directed the federal agencies nationwide -- and here's some ways we can help. We can curtail nonessential travel. If it makes sense for the citizen out there to curtail nonessential travel, it darn sure makes sense for federal employees. We can encourage employees to carpool or use mass transit. And we can shift peak electricity use to off-peak hours. There's ways for the federal government to lead when it comes to conservation."

Is he even saying this new kick should last more than a few days? Who knows? Either way, it's a far cry from announcing a major policy shift. But the press picked up the story as if he were declaring the moral equivalent of war.

What Did Yesterday's Trip Accomplish?

Bush flew to Texas and Louisiana yesterday.

Roma Khanna and Julie Mason write in the Houston Chronicle: "Bush met for more than an hour with local officials who expressed frustration with delays in receiving basics such as food, water and fuel, and essential tools such as generators. . . .

"Jefferson County Judge Carl Griffith, who has criticized the federal response, said that officials had promised him that resources would be on the ground as soon as winds quieted but that little aid had arrived so far.

" 'The government failed in their duty to the citizens,' Griffith said after meeting with Bush at the Southeast Texas Regional Airport. 'The sad part is, this should have never happened after the wreck that occurred that was (Hurricane) Katrina.' . . .

"Port Arthur Mayor Oscar Ortiz said Federal Emergency Management Agency officials asked him for more paperwork when he requested materials to keep his community afloat.

" 'The problem with that is that I don't have a telephone, fax; I don't even have a carrier pigeon' to get it to them, he said."

So will Bush take those criticisms to heart? Will they spur him to change federal policy? The president acknowledged hearing frustration yesterday, but gave no sign that he was going to do anything differently.

This is from the text of his remarks in Texas: "Obviously, we want people to come home as quickly as possible. We want them to be able to do so in an orderly way. And when they get home, they find that there's a -- you know, as best as possible, power and water."

And this is from the text of his remarks in Louisiana: "I heard loud and clear from the parish presidents and the mayors that, you know, people are getting frustrated. And I understand that frustration. But I think it's very important to listen to the governors -- the Governor and the local folks about the conditions at home. People are working hard to get the utilities up, they're working hard to get fuel here for people. And this area is going to rebuild and it's going to grow again."

And did the locals find Bush's visit helpful?

Khanna and Mason write: "People in the area greeted Bush's visit with mixed reactions. Some were comforted by his effort to view the destruction in person. Others waited for his promises to affect their lives. . . .

"Local officials, in the end, said they were satisfied that Bush listened to their concerns. They said they are cautiously optimistic that much-needed aid would begin to arrive."

Brownie Speaks

The former director of FEMA yesterday blamed dysfunctional Louisiana officials for the botched relief effort after Katrina, and responded bitterly to scornful cracks about his own conduct from a mostly Republican congressional panel.

But the longer-term significance of his testimony may be the smattering of light he shed into the goings-on at the White House during the days just before and just after the hurricane hit.

Raymond Hernandez writes in the New York Times: "Michael D. Brown, who stepped down as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the government's much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina, told a Congressional committee on Tuesday that he had warned the White House of impending disaster several days before the storm struck.

"Asked when the White House became aware that a 'disaster was looming' in the Gulf Coast region, Mr. Brown said he had warned Andrew H. Card Jr., President Bush's chief of staff, at least three days before the hurricane hit New Orleans on Aug. 28. . . .

"In his testimony, Mr. Brown was careful not to blame President Bush or the White House for the government's handling of the situation. But his comments raised questions about whether the White House responded aggressively enough in light of the warnings Mr. Brown said he offered."

Here's the full transcript from yesterday's hearing.

A few excerpts:

"BROWN: On Saturday and Sunday, I started talking to the White House.

"Rep. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (R-Conn.): To who? The White House is a big place.

"BROWN: Uh-huh.

"SHAYS: Give us specifics. I'm not asking about conversations yet. I want to know who you contacted.

"BROWN: I exchanged e-mails and phone calls with [Deputy Chief of Staff] Joe Hagin, [Chief of Staff] Andy Card and the president.

"SHAYS: And what was their reaction? And what was their suggestions on how you should deal with this issue?

"BROWN: They offered to do whatever they could do and were going to start making phone calls.

"SHAYS: And what did you ask them to do?

"BROWN: Well, I'm being advised by counsel that I can't discuss with you my conversations with the president's chief of staff and the president.

"(UNKNOWN): Excuse me, Mr. Brown, you discussed it with The New York Times.

"BROWN: Yes.

"(UNKNOWN): So, I think at least what you shared with the New York Times, I think you can share with this committee.

"BROWN: I told them we needed help. . . .

"Rep. HENRY BONILLA (R-Texas): Mr. Brown, one of the problems was that the country did not perceive that the White House was focused on this. Whether they were or were not, the perception was that there was not a focus at the highest level.

"At what point do you think the White House became focused on the fact that a disaster was looming in Louisiana and along the Gulf Coast?

"BROWN: Oh, they were aware of that by Thursday or Friday, because Andy Card and I were communicating at that point about -- in fact, I remember saying to Andy at one point that this was going to be a bad one. They were focused about it. They knew it.

"BONILLA: Some of the images that America watched on television early in the week, the president was speaking on an unrelated matter in a different part of the country, and I think he was on television with some musician. So as this storm was looming, there was not, again, out there an understanding that there was a focus at the highest level on what needed to be done to save these people.

"And if, in fact, there was a failure at the local level, as the mayor of New Orleans or as the governor of Louisiana, that perhaps there could have been a message that came from the president directly to get out of town because there was a disaster on the horizon.

"In hindsight, would you have wanted that? Would you have thought that would have been helpful?

"BROWN: Well, that's precisely what I talked to the president about on Sunday, yes. In hindsight, I should have done it on Saturday. . . .

"Rep. THOMAS M. DAVIS III (R-Va.): Let me just ask you how many times during this did you talk to the White House?

"BROWN: Oh gosh, Mr. Chairman, I don't know.

"DAVIS: Ballpark.

"BROWN: I mean, 30 times. I mean, I don't know.

"DAVIS: How many times did you talk to the president, or was he on the line with the communication?

"BROWN: The president was on one of the conference calls, talked to the president personally numerous times, several times. A couple of phone calls from the president, a phone call to the president.

"DAVIS: Any trouble getting through when you had to -- "BROWN: No.


"And what was the nature of the response from the White House when you were telling them you needed these things and getting them out; did they say they'd get them there or -- "BROWN: Yes. I mean, the White House is -- I think this committee really needs to understand that the White House was fully engaged. The White House was working behind the scenes to make certain that whatever deals -- "Rep. GENE TAYLOR (D-Miss.): They had to be behind the scenes, because I think we didn't see anything out front at that point."

Brown did criticize the cutting of FEMA's budget after it was merged into the Department of Homeland Security. But he said that wasn't Bush's fault.

"And that's not been, not because the president doesn't support FEMA," Brown said. "The president supports FEMA totally. I think the president's behind the organization 100 percent.

"But as we've gone through these changes with the focus on terrorism, as we've gone through the merger . . . resources have just been moved, used to other things, different priorities have come in place."

Good Question

White House Briefing reader Richard Lynn asks: "Can Mr. Brown tell me now which other state governments are dysfunctional and would, thus, not be able to receive help from the federal government? Are they Democratic or Republican governed states? Can he do a survey now, so we know whether or not we can expect help from the Feds in case of a future catastrophe?"

Torture Watch

The Washington Post today prints a letter from Army Capt. Ian Fishback, sent to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), in which Fishback expresses his frustration at the absence of clear standards governing how the military should treat detainees.

In the letter, The Post Editorial Board explains, Fishback "expresses his view, based on service in Iraq and Afghanistan, that this 'confusion contributed to a wide range of abuses including death threats, beatings, broken bones, murder, exposure to elements, extreme forced physical exertion, hostage-taking, stripping, sleep deprivation and degrading treatment.' "How can it be that an officer of the United States armed services, concerned about detainee mistreatment that he has personally witnessed, could struggle in vain for 17 months to learn the standards of humane treatment the military is applying? The answer to this question appears starkly in the written responses to questions from senators by Timothy E. Flanigan, President Bush's nominee to serve as deputy attorney general: The Bush administration has no standards for humane treatment of detainees. Capt. Fishback is looking for something that doesn't exist....

"Mr. Bush has promised that all detainees will be treated humanely. Yet, when asked how he would define humane treatment, Mr. Flanigan declared that he does 'not believe that the term "inhumane" treatment is susceptible to a succinct definition.' Did the White House provide any guidance as to its meaning? 'I am not aware of any guidance provided by the White House specifically related to the meaning of humane treatment.' "

Supreme Court Watch

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush, nearing the end of his search for a successor to retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, has whittled his list to a handful of candidates and could announce his decision by week's end. . . .

"Often mentioned are federal appellate judges Alice Batchelder, J. Michael Luttig, Edith Jones, J. Harvie Wilkinson, Priscilla Owen, Samuel Alito, Karen Williams and Michael McConnell.

"Also said to be under consideration are corporate attorney Larry Thompson, White House counsel Harriet Miers, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. . . .

"Miers is leading the White House effort to help Bush choose a nominee to the Supreme Court, so naming her would follow a move Bush made in 2000 when he tapped the man leading his search committee for a running mate -- Dick Cheney."

National Guard Watch

Don Kaplan writes in the New York Post: "Dan Rather wants to reopen the investigation into President Bush and the National Guard story that resulted in the Memogate scandal and led to his early departure from the anchor desk.

"But his bosses at CBS have forbidden him to go back at it, he said. . . .

"Rather continues to insist that the story was correct and suggested in the interview that he and the network may have been set up by some outsider. . . .

" 'One supporting pillar of the story, albeit an important one, one supporting pillar was brought into question,' he said. 'To this day, no one has proven whether it was what it purported to be or not.' "

Laura Bush Makeover Watch

Anne E. Kornblut writes in the New York Times from Biloxi: "Mrs. Bush flew here on Tuesday for a cameo on 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,' the blockbuster ABC show that usually does impromptu remodeling for disadvantaged homeowners but is now taking supplies to hurricane victims for segments to be shown later this year. . . .

"[W]ith her husband still struggling to regain his political footing many weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the decision to link her with reality TV had a whiff of the daring.

"It also suggested that despite an increased effort by President Bush to address the hurricane crisis - his visit to Texas on Tuesday was his seventh to the area since Hurricane Katrina hit, hers was her fifth - the White House was casting about for more creative ways to convey its concern and manage public opinion."

Late Night Humor

From Jon Stewart on Comedy Central's "Daily Show":

"In the search to make sense of the recent Gulf Coast tragedies, some have suggested that the hurricanes may have been a sign of God's displeasure, a manifestation of the fact that we're living in end times. I wasn't sure I agreed -- until yesterday, when I saw this:"

He then rolls tape of Bush saying: "We can all pitch in by using -- by being better conservers of energy."

Humor From Behind the Firewall

Columnist Maureen Dowd writes in the New York Times (subscription required) : "I can't wait to see what's next.

"Dick Cheney carpooling downtown with Brownie? Rummy Rollerblading down the bike path to the Pentagon? Condi huddling by a Watergate fireplace in a gray cardigan?

"Maybe now that our hydrocarbon president is the conservation president, he'll downgrade from Air Force One to a solar-powered Piper Cub as he continues to stalk the Gulf Coast towns and oil rigs like Banquo's ghost."

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