George Bush was on vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, on Monday, Aug. 29, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall at 7 a.m. Of course, he wasn’t completely off duty — he had some politicking to do in the west that day. During the morning he spoke with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff who was in Washington — but the topic was not the disaster, it was immigration. At around that same, mid-morning on Monday, the first levee failed and the flooding began, but it would be 24 hours before Chertoff was made aware of it.
Meanwhile, Bush stopped briefly at the Phoenix airport to cut up for the cameras with GOP Sen. John McCain, his bitter rival from the 2000 presidential primaries. It was McCain’s 69th birthday, and Bush’s people had supplied him with a birthday cake to use as a prop. Later, Bush stopped at two senior citizens centers for some politicking — he was out promoting his unfunded Medicare drug benefit.
That day, Bush received an urgent request from Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, that read, “Mr. President, we need your help. We need everything you’ve got.” But that night, as thousands of Americans huddled in the attics of their flooded homes in New Orleans, Bush turned in early without responding to the governor’s request.
The next morning, Aug. 30, Bush gave a speech promoting his status as a wartime president at a naval base in Colorado. About noon, Chertoff was finally informed that the levees had failed 24 hours earlier.
Tuesday afternoon, Bush promoted his unfunded Medicare drug benefit at another senior center. After the event, at around 2 p.m., Bush was photographed goofing around with a guitar given to him by country singer Mark Willis.
Aides will later claim that Bush had refused to watch television news coverage of the disaster. At 4 p.m., he made his first public statement, during which he seemed “casual to the point of carelessness,” according to the New York Times. At 7 p.m., Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice attended a performance of “Spamalot,” the Monty Python musical, on Broadway.
At 8 p.m., FEMA director Michael Brown told a reporter, “I must say, this storm is much much bigger than anyone expected.”
The next day, Aug. 31, the New York Times published an editorial criticizing Bush:
On the day after Hurricane Katrina was declared to be not as bad as originally feared, it became clear that the effects of the storm had been, after all, beyond devastation. Homeowners in Biloxi, Miss., staggered through wrecked neighborhoods looking for their loved ones. In New Orleans, the mayor reported that rescue boats had begun pushing past dead bodies to look for the stranded living. Gas leaks began erupting into flames, and looking at the city, now at least 80 percent under water, it was hard not to think of last year’s tsunami, or even ancient Pompeii.
Disaster has, as it almost always does, called up American generosity and instances of heroism. Young people helped the old onto rafts in flooded New Orleans streets, and exhausted rescue workers refused all offers of rest, while people as far away as Kansas and Arizona went online to offer shelter in their homes to the refugees. It was also a reminder of how much we rely on government to imagine the unimaginable and plan for the worst. As the levees of Lake Pontchartrain gave way, flooding New Orleans, it seemed pretty clear that in this case, government did not live up to the job.
But this seems like the wrong moment to dwell on fault-finding, or even to point out that it took what may become the worst natural disaster in American history to pry President Bush out of his vacation.
Of course, that last bit in the NYT editorial was simply false. About five months earlier, on March 19, 2005, Bush cut short his Easter vacation to rush back to Washington for something far less urgent:
President Bush is changing his schedule to return to the White House on Sunday to be in place to sign emergency legislation that would shift the case of a brain-damaged Florida woman [Terri Schiavo] to federal courts, the White House said Saturday.
“Everyone recognizes that time is important here,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. “This is about defending life.”
Defending life, Scott? An autopsy later revealed that this poor woman’s brain had turned to goo years earlier. She’d been forced to exist in this tortured state for nearly two decades for no other reason than the Republican Party’s desperate need to prop up the bizarre beliefs of its evangelical base.
The fact that Bush’s motive in rushing back to Washington was not “life” but politics was proved when a memo surfaced written by a lawyer for Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) in which the lawyer predicted that the Schiavo matter would be “a great political issue” to use in the party’s 2006 campaign against Florida’s Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, because Nelson had refused to co-sponsor the bill ordering federal intervention in Terri’s case. (Nelson won reelection in 2006.)
Except for the resignation under pressure of FEMA director Michael Brown, no one in the Bush administration was ever held accountable for the official negligence — the rank incompetence — of the government’s handling of Katrina. Instead, we got politics:
Under the command of President Bush’s two senior political advisers, the White House rolled out a plan this weekend to contain the political damage from the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina…
The effort is being directed by Mr. Bush’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove, and his communications director, Dan Bartlett. It began late last week after Congressional Republicans called White House officials to register alarm about what they saw as a feeble response by Mr. Bush to the hurricane, according to Republican Congressional aides…
Mr. Bush is to return to Louisiana and Mississippi on Monday; his first visit, on Friday, left some Republicans cringing, in part because the president had little contact with residents left homeless…
In many ways, the unfolding public relations campaign reflects the style Mr. Rove has brought to the political campaigns he has run for Mr. Bush. For example, administration officials who went on television on Sunday were instructed to avoid getting drawn into exchanges about the problems of the past week, and to turn the discussion to what the government is doing now.
“We will have time to go back and do an after-action report, but the time right now is to look at what the enormous tasks ahead are,” Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security, said on “Meet the Press” on NBC.
Of course, no “after action report” was ever done. Bush has never been asked to explain why he didn’t cut short his politicking/vacation to manage the crisis himself. Rove’s political efforts to avert the administration from being called to account worked with his key constituencies — the Beltway media and the Republicans who controlled Congress. But the American people were not fooled.
One result of Bush’s failure with Katrina was that the illusion Rove and others had created that the administration was disciplined and competent was forever dispelled.The public never trusted Bush again. His approval rating fell into the 30s, and stayed there, or lower, until he left office.