President Bush’s press conference the day was galling in many ways: The man’s inability to admit a mistake was stunning. Hell, I’ve made plenty of mistakes in the past eight years. How about you? But nothing was more pathetic than his truculence regarding the federal response to the levee breaks after Hurricane Katrina. The issue is one that requires careful, precise but forceful moral analysis.
The tragedy that befell New Orleans was not, strictly speaking, a natural disaster. The failures were man-made. Hurricane Katrina did not destroy New Orleans. The failure of federally built and federally managed levees flooded New Orleans. Concerns about the levees had been ignored and the Army Corps of Engineers had its hands full trying to rebuild Baghdad, yet another evil consequence of an unnecessary war.
Nor is it possible for the federal government to shift the blame. Blaming the Mayor of New Orleans or the Governor of Louisiana for the failure to respond to the catastrophe overlooks the fact that all the resources with which both city and state could respond were themselves overwhelmed by the catastrophe. New Orleans and Louisiana needed help to be brought in from the outside.
Katrina was the moment when the American people learned they could not believe President Bush and his administration. There had been debates about how the war in Iraq was progressing, but who knew how to assess the administration’s claims? But, in the aftermath of Katrina Americans saw Bush-style denial in ways they could grasp. I remember listening to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in an interview on NPR. "All Things Considered" had led off with a report by Robert Burnett from the Convention Center where its reporter on the ground said there was no food, no water and no law at that location. Chertoff’s interview followed and he told host Robert Seigel "You know, the one thing about an episode like this is if you talk to someone and you get a rumor or you get someone’s anecdotal version of something, I think it’s dangerous to extrapolate it all over the place..."I had never heard an NPR host blow his lid, but Seigel did, informing Chertoff in no uncertain terms that the report they had just aired was from Burnett, a veteran reporter with ample experience in war zones. These were not rumors. American citizens were dying where their government had sent them to seek refuge and the man charged with protecting them refused to admit there was even a problem. Bush was never believable again.
I have never been a fan of Bush but I also never found myself hating him the way some of my confreres on the Left seemed to hate him. But, in the weeks and months after the failure to respond to the flooding of New Orleans, I found myself pulling up alongside cars still sporting a Bush bumper sticker, rolling down my window, and asking sarcastically, "Still happy with Bush?"
It is small comfort that Bush’s approval ratings began their downward spiral in the days and weeks after the levees broke. And, it is even less comfort that three years after Bush promised to rebuild New Orleans, the Crescent City remains half of her former self and this fact will do more than anything to color Bush’s standing before history.
Yet, Bush seemed completely unfazed as he sought to defend his record. It was worse than standard denial. It was delusional. That, alas, is the principal legacy of George W. Bush: an administration record of delusion and denial, of ideological conformity and ideological extremism. Herbert Hoover will soon have company in the catalogue of failed presidencies.