September 13, 2005
The Archbishop of Washington
Slipstreaming behind the annual rituals of sorrow and reverence for 9/11, George W Bush has decreed that, five days later, on the 16th, there is to be a further day of solemnities on which the nation will pray for the unnumbered victims of Hurri-cane Katrina. Prayers (like vacations) are the default mode for this president who knows how to chuckle and bow the head in the midst of disaster but not, when it counts, how to govern or to command. If you feel the prickly heat of politics, summon a hymn to make it go away; make accountability seem a blasphemy.
Thus has George Bush become the Archbishop of Washington even as his aura as lord protector slides into the putrid black lagoon, bobbing with cadavers and slick with oil, that has swallowed New Orleans. No doubt the born-again president is himself sincere about invoking the Almighty. But you can hear the muttered advice in the White House: Mr President, we were in trouble after 9/11; the unfortunate episode of the schoolroom, My Little Goat and all that. But do what you did then; set yourself once more at the centre of the nation; go to the epicentre of the horror and embrace its heroes; make yourself the country’s patriotic invigorator and all may yet be well.
… Historians ought not to be in the prophecy business but I’ll venture this one: Katrina will be seen as a watershed in the public and political life of the US, because it has put back into play the profound question of American government. Ever since Ronald Reagan proclaimed that government was not the answer but the problem, conservatism has stigmatised public service as parasitically unpatriotic, an anomaly in the robust self-sufficiency of American life. For the most part, Democrats have been too supine, too embarrassed and too inarticulate to fight back with a coherent defence of the legitimacy of democratic government. Now, if ever, is their moment; not to revive the New Deal or the Great Society (though unapologetically preserving social security might be a start) but to stake a claim to being the party that delivers competent, humane, responsive government, the party of public trust.
For the most shocking difference between 9/11 and Katrina was in what might have been expected in the aftermath of disaster. For all the intelligence soundings, it was impossible to predict the ferocity, much less the timing, of the 9/11 attacks. But Katrina was the most anticipated catastrophe in modern American history. Perhaps the lowest point in Bush’s abject performance last week was when he claimed that no one could have predicted the breach in the New Orleans levees, when report after report commissioned by him, not to mention a simulation just last year, had done precisely that. But he had cut the budget appropriation for maintaining flood defences by nearly 50%, so that for the first time in 37 years Louisiana was unable to supply the protection it knew it would need in the event of catastrophe. Likewise Fema, which under Bill Clinton had been a cabinet level agency reporting directly to the president, had under his successor been turned into a hiring opportunity for political hacks and cronies and disappeared into the lumbering behemoth of Homeland Security. It was Fema that failed the Gulf; Fema which failed to secure the delivery of food, water, ice and medical supplies desperately asked for by the Mayor of New Orleans; and it was the president and his government-averse administration that had made Fema a bad joke.
In the last election campaign George W Bush asked Americans to vote for him as the man who would best fulfil the most essential obligation of government: the impartial and vigilant protection of its citizens. Now the fraudulence of the claim has come back to haunt him, not in Baghdad but in the drowned counties of Louisiana. In the recoil, disgust and fury felt by millions of Americans at this abdi-cation of responsibility, the president - notwithstanding his comically self-serving promise to lead an inquiry into the fiasco - will assuredly reap the whirlwind.
You can read the entire piece here.
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