09/05/2005: Drowned in The Bathtub...
THE WHITE HOUSE UNDER WATER by David Remnick:
”One of the creepier vanities of most political leaders is the private yearning to be tested on a historical scale. Bill Clinton used to confide that, no matter what else he did as President, without a major war to fight he could never join the ranks of Lincoln and F.D.R. During the Presidential debates in 2000, George W. Bush informed his opponent, Al Gore, that natural catastrophes are “a time to test your mettle.” Bush had seen his father falter after a hurricane in South Florida. But now he has done far worse. Over five days last week, from the onset of the hurricane on the Gulf Coast on Monday morning to his belated visit to the region on Friday, Bush’s mettle was tested—and he failed in almost every respect.
Obviously, a hurricane is beyond human blame, and the political miscalculations that have come to light—the negligent planning, the delayed rescue and aid efforts, the thoroughly confused and uninspired political leadership—cannot all be laid at the feet of President Bush. But you could sense, watching him being interviewed by Diane Sawyer on ABC’s “Good Morning America”—defensive, confused, overwhelmed—that he knew that he had delivered a series of feeble, vague, almost flippant speeches in the early days of the crisis, and that the only way to prevent further political damage was to inoculate himself with the inevitable call for non-partisanship: “I hope people don’t play politics during this period of time.”
And yet, to a frightening degree, Bush’s faults of leadership and character were brought into high relief by the crisis. Suntanned and relaxed after a vacation so long that it would have shamed a French playboy, Bush reacted with fogged delinquency, as if he had been so lulled by his summer sojourn that he was not quite ready to acknowledge reality, let alone attempt to master it. His first view of the floods came, pitifully, theatrically, from the window of a low-flying Air Force One, and all the President could muster was, according to his press secretary, “It’s devastating. It’s got to be doubly devastating on the ground.” The moment demanded clarity of mind and rigorous governance, and yet he could not summon them. The performance skills Bush eventually mustered after September 11th—in his bullhorn speech at Ground Zero, in his first speech to Congress—eluded him. The whole conceit of his Presidency, that he was an instinctive chief executive backed by “grownups” like Dick Cheney and tactical wizards like Karl Rove, now seemed as water-logged as Biloxi and New Orleans. The mismanagement of the Katrina floods echoed the White House mismanagement—the cavalier posture, the wretched decisions, the self-delusions—in postwar Iraq.
Just as serious, the President’s priorities, his indifference to questions of infrastructure and the environment, magnified an already complicated disaster. In an era of tax cuts for the wealthy, Bush consistently slashed the Army Corps of Engineers’ funding requests to improve the levees holding back Lake Pontchartrain. This year, he asked for $3.9 million, $23 million less than the Corps requested. In the end, Bush reluctantly agreed to $5.7 million, delaying seven contracts, including one to enlarge the New Orleans levees. Former Republican congressman Michael Parker was forced out as the head of the Corps by Bush in 2002 when he dared to protest the lack of proper funding.
Similarly, the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, which is supposed to improve drainage and pumping systems in the New Orleans area, recently asked for $62.5 million; the White House proposed $10.5 million. Former Louisiana Senator John Breaux, a pro-Bush Democrat, said, “All of us said, ‘Look, build it or you’re going to have all of Jefferson Parish under water.’ And they didn’t, and now all of Jefferson Parish is under water.”
The President’s incuriosity, his prideful insistence on being an underbriefed “gut player,” is not looking so charming right now, either, if it ever did. In the ABC interview, he said, “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.” Even the most cursory review shows that there have been comprehensive and chilling warnings of a potential calamity on the Gulf Coast for years. The most telling, but hardly the only, example was a five-part series in 2002 by John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, a newspaper that heroically kept publishing on the Internet last week. After evaluating the city’s structural deficiencies, the Times-Picayune reporters concluded that a catastrophe was “a matter of when, not if.” The same paper said last year, “For the first time in 37 years, federal budget cuts have all but stopped major work on the New Orleans area’s east bank hurricane levees, a complex network of concrete walls, metal gates and giant earthen berms that won’t be finished for at least another decade.” A Category 4 or 5 hurricane would be a catastrophe: “Soon the geographical ‘bowl’ of the Crescent City would fill up with the waters of the lake, leaving those unable to evacuate with little option but to cluster on rooftops—terrain they would have to share with hungry rats, fire ants, nutria, snakes, and perhaps alligators. The water itself would become a festering stew of sewage, gasoline, refinery chemicals, and debris.” And that describes much of the Gulf Coast today.
Karen on 09.05.05 @ 04:44 PM CST