From Time Mag...
Sunday, Sep. 04, 2005
Dipping His Toe Into DisasterSlow, awkward and at times tone-deaf, Bush mishandled the storm's first days. Now he has his own recovery problem
By MATTHEW COOPER
It isn't easy picking George Bush's worst moment last week. Was it his first go at addressing the crisis Wednesday, when he came across as cool to the point of uncaring? Was it when he said that he didn't "think anybody expected" the New Orleans levees to give way, though that very possibility had been forecast for years? Was it when he arrived in Mobile, Ala., a full four days after the storm made landfall, and praised his hapless Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director, Michael D. Brown, whose disaster credentials seemed to consist of once being the commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association? "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," said the President. Or was it that odd moment when he promised to rebuild Mississippi Senator Trent Lott's house--a gesture that must have sounded astonishingly tone-deaf to the homeless black citizens still trapped in the postapocalyptic water world of New Orleans. "Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott's house--he's lost his entire house," cracked Bush, "there's going to be a fantastic house. And I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch."
Bush seemed so regularly out of it last week, it made you wonder if he was stuck in the same White House bubble of isolation that confined his dad. Too often, W. looked annoyed. Or he smiled when he should have been serious. Or he swaggered when simple action would have been the right move.
And he was so slow. Everyone knew on Sunday morning that Katrina was a killer. Yet when the levees broke after the storm, the White House slouched toward action. And this from a leader who made his bones with 9/11. In a crisis he can act paradoxically, appearing--almost simultaneously--strong and weak, decisive and vacillating, Churchill and Chamberlain. This week he was more Chamberlain.
There was no breaking off from his commemoration in Coronado, Calif., of the 60th anniversary of victory over Japan, but there were videoconference calls and the like. The White House is "very, very slow sometimes," says a former Administration official. Besides, members of the A team were on vacation: chief of staff Andy Card was in Maine; Dick Cheney was in Wyoming; even Condoleezza Rice was out of town, shoe-shopping in Manhattan. Many of Bush's best p.r. minds, including media adviser Mark McKinnon, were in Greece at the wedding of White House communications director Nicolle Devenish. Had they been around, perhaps Bush would not have been accompanied only by his dog Barney when he returned from vacation in Crawford.
Part of what dogged Bush was long-standing traits. He showed his usual reluctance to ask for sacrifice from Americans, and that added to the sense that he just didn't get it. While Southern Governors facing fuel shortages in the coming days have called on drivers to scale back use of their cars, Bush did so only as an afterthought. "We ought to conserve more," he finally said on Thursday, making it seem like a vague option. The same day, Bush all but spurned offers of help from allies because of the way it would look. "I'm sure he saw it as a sign of American weakness to be taking aid from other countries," says the former Administration official. A Bush aide countered that his boss "wasn't rejecting offers; he wasn't focused on it."
Bush did begin to admit that the response was "unacceptable." But even when it came to enacting the role of Consoler in Chief, he sometimes sounded more like a quartermaster, running through long lists of things the government was sending to the Gulf Coast, rather than empathizing with people. That may be why the White House wheeled out his pitch-perfect wife Laura on Friday, to lend some genuine compassion to the moment.
Of course, Bush has a history of floundering at the start of a crisis and then finding his voice. Handling Sept. 11 is now considered his finest hour, even though he stumbled dramatically at first. But last week offered no New York bullhorn moment. He can't threaten to get Katrina "dead or alive." The victims didn't need a photo-op gesture of reassurance so much as water, food and escape, plus help for the long haul. And for an Administration that has staked its reputation on fighting the war on terrorism, no one can be very encouraged by the first crisis test-drive of the Department of Homeland Security. What's more, while Americans might have rallied around Bush as he faced a foreign threat, this time the enemy is his own bureaucracy, the one that left American refugees to fend for themselves far longer than anybody thinks is acceptable.
As he drove to meet the President, Bobby Jindal, the Republican Congressman from metro New Orleans, complained about aspects of the federal response: "The bureaucracy needs to do more than one thing at a time. It's appropriate to save people with helicopters, but it can't be done to the exclusion of everything else." Jindal, who served in the President's Administration, would like Bush to ask Colin Powell to come back to run the relief operation. Others urge Bush to rope in New York City's savior Rudy Giuliani. Given the President's own performance, passing the buck wouldn't be the worst thing.
Copyright © 2005 Time Inc.