09/18/2005: Thought for the Day:
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.
Len on 09.18.05 @ 08:04 AM CST