Begat, Bothered, Bewildered
By MAUREEN DOWD
Published: August 30, 2006
Doing his stations of the Katrina cross, President Bush went for breakfast with Mayor Ray Nagin at Betsy’s Pancake House.
As Mr. Bush tried to squeeze past some tightly placed tables, a waitress, Joyce Labruzzo, teased him, saying, ‘Mr. President, are you going to turn your back on me?â€™’
‘No ma’am,’ he replied, with a laugh and a pause for effect. ‘Not again.’
It was a rare unguarded moment – showing that his towering Katrina failure is lodged somewhere in the front of his cerebral cortex – in a trip of staged, studiously happy settings, steering away from the wreckage of buildings and people so searing for anyone who loved the saucy and sauce-laden New Orleans of old.
W.’s anniversary contrition for the cameras was a more elaborate version of his famous Air Force One flyover a year ago, when he had to be shown a DVD of angry news coverage of apartheid suffering here before he belatedly and grudgingly broke off his five-week Crawford vacation.
In an interview on the Upper Ninth Wardâ€™s desolate North Dorgenois Street, the president told NBC’s Brian Williams that, besides Camus, he had recently read a book on the Battle of New Orleans and ‘three Shakespeares.’ A White House aide said one of them was Hamlet.
What could be more fitting? A prince who dithers instead of acting and then acts precipitously at the wrong moment, not paying attention when someone vulnerable drowns.
Asked by the anchor whether he was asking people in the country to sacrifice enough, he replied briskly, ‘Americans are sacrificing – we pay a lot of taxes.’
The last two days in Mississippi and New Orleans were W.’s play within the play. He took the role of the empathetic and engaged chief executive, rallying resources to save the Gulf Coast, even as the larger lens showed a sad picture of American communities that are still decrepit and hurting, while the Bush administration’s billions flow to reconstructing – or rather not reconstructing – Iraq.
You longed for this Crawford Hamlet to just go out there and say, ‘This just isn’t good enough.’
Instead, he gritted his teeth and put on his blandly optimistic cheerleader-in-chief role and talked about restoring ‘the soul’ of New Orleans. It always makes me nervous when W. does soul talk.
He was brazen enough to pose as the man of action even in a city ruined by his initial and continuing inaction. ‘I’ve been on the levees,’â€™ he told a crowd at a high school here yesterday. ‘Iâ€™ve seen these good folks working.’â€™
He spoke to a small number of residents in the boiling sun before the one house that had been tidily restored in a blighted working-class neighborhood in Biloxi. Outside the TV frame, there was a toilet on its side in the yard of a gutted house full of dangling wires, iron scraps and other sad detritus. On one fence spoke there was a child’s abandoned stuffed toy.
At a stop at a building company in Gulfport, Miss., he chirped biblically: ‘There will be a momentum, momentum will be gathered. Houses will begat jobs, jobs will begat houses.’
Douglas Brinkley, the New Orleans writer who recounted the history of the trellis of failure, Republican and Democratic, federal, state and local, in The Great Deluge, noted that Mr. Bush was merely ‘sweating bullets trying to get the visit over with.’
‘In the Republican playbook, Katrinaâ€™s a loser,’ he said.
Mr. Bush tells journalists he has been reading prodigiously, 53 books so far this year, with three bios of George Washington, two of Lincoln and one of Mao. He seems more attuned to his place in history and yet he doesn’t really seem to get that his presidency will be defined by rushing into one place too fast and not rushing into another fast enough.
He has let Dick Cheney and Rummy launch Cat-5 attacks on critics of the war. Darth Vader reiterated his nutty pre-emption policy, and Rummy compared critics of Iraq to Chamberlains who appeased Hitler, noting that ‘once again we face similar challenges in efforts to confront the rising threat of a new type of fascism.’
Somebody needs to corner the defense chief and explain that it’s not that we don’t want to fight terrorism, it’s that we want to do it efficiently and effectively. Why is it necessary to scare the country, make false connections between an ill-conceived war and fighting terror, and demonize critics with outrageously careless historical references to Hitler and fascism?
W. needs to restore the soul, not merely of the Big Easy, but of the White House.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.