[xmca] the new yorker on bush and katrina

From: David Preiss (davidpreiss@puc.cl)
Date: Fri Sep 09 2005 - 12:43:05 PDT

by David Remnick
Issue of 2005-09-12
Posted 2005-09-03

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.

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