What Does the Katrina Video Say About Bush?

The video of President Bush conferring with disaster officials from his Texas ranch the day before Katrina struck is disturbingly similar to the footage of the casual way Bush reacted to news of the Sept. 11 terror attack. This is the same Bush who time and again has primed his public image as a tough-talking, swaggering guy who moves quickly and decisively when a crisis hits. But Bush has been anything but a no-nonsense taskmaster in the face of disaster.

His first reaction to Sept. 11 was befuddlement and fear. It took him days to swing into action. His next response was to duck and dodge criticism of his glacial response to 9/11. His last ploy was to let others take the heat or the fall for his fumbles. Then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was the perfect patsy for Bush's Sept. 11 failing. At the 9/11 Commission hearing, she fervently defended her boss from the charge that he fell asleep at the national security wheel before, during and after the attacks. She strongly made the case that there was no laxity in the Bush administration's fight against terrorism.

Counter terrorism expert Richard Clarke, who charged that the administration had slumbered on the terrorism fight didn't have a chance to rebut anything Rice said. Rice had the last word, and thus there could be no "he-said, she-said" exchanges between them. Rice was a loyal Bush soldier and shouldered some of the blame for the Sept. 11 lapse. This helped keep some sheen on her boss' Teflon shield.

Now there's Katrina. Bush tore another page from the same dodge-and-blame playbook. It took him days to get relief efforts up to speed in New Orleans. He then ducked criticism that there was incompetence, indifference and even racism in his laggard response to the crisis. Finally, he dumped full blame for the failures on FEMA director Michael Brown. It worked. Much of the public and many in the media hammered Brown for the dire plight of the hurricane devastated evacuees. Bush quickly took the cue and canned Brown. Brown, as Rice, played the fall-guy role well, kept silent and bowed out quietly. Later, and especially with the public surface of the damning Katrina video, he's found his spine, and blames the Katrina bumbles on the "fog of bureaucracy." That's a clever way to avoid saying that the man at the top didn't do his job.

The Katrina video is graphic proof that Bush did more than fumble the preparedness ball. He ignored it. Brown begged those at the government's disaster operation center to do whatever it took to get hurricane relief efforts going. He also urged that National Guard units be prepared to quickly move in and aid relief efforts, since this storm could be "the big one." Brown also showed some sensitivity to those who would have to be herded into the Superdome to escape floodwaters. He demanded that provisions be made for their medical and safety needs. He even worried about the Superdome's roof. Other disaster officials and experts warned urgently about the possibility of the levees being breached.

Bush knew all of this, and seems to have done little except offer verbal reassurances. Four days after the storm hit and floodwaters tore through the city, Bush lied and publicly stated that no one anticipated that the levees would break. Not once during the briefing, as the video shows, did Bush ask one question about the levees.

The worst part of this is that so little has changed in the months since the Katrina debacle. Thousands of evacuees are still scattered in far-flung cities across the country, many without jobs, and living under the daily threat that they can be evicted from the hotels and apartments that they have been temporarily housed in. And thousands of New Orleans and Gulf residents whose homes were severely damaged or destroyed still have not received any compensation for their losses. Bush has maintained mute silence about their predicament.

Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana officials were justifiably livid at the disgraceful shots of the president's men in crisis and their boss blithely doing nothing to deal with it. They shouldn't have been. His dumbfounded response to 9/11 offered hints that Bush can't manage a real disaster. The videotape is smoking-gun proof that Bush is not, and never has been, the man of action that the president's spin-masters have made him out too be. His embarrassingly low poll ratings are firm testament that much of the public has finally wised up to his leadership failings.

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