With the one year anniversary of Katrina at hand we will be deluged by a Hurricane of commemoration and analysis over the next few weeks. What strikes me so far is the similarity of all the assessments I have read so far.
Sheryl Gay Stolberg in today’s NYT begins with a focus on that same image of Bush that I referred to in yesterday’s post. She makes an even more striking comparison:
When the nation records the legacy of George W. Bush, 43rd president and self-described compassionate conservative, two competing images will help tell the tale.
The first is of Mr. Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, bullhorn in hand, feet planted firmly in the rubble of the twin towers. The second is of him aboard Air Force One, on his way from Crawford, Tex., to Washington, peering out the window at the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina thousands of feet below.
If the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina called into question the president’s competence, that Air Force One snapshot, coupled with wrenching scenes on the ground of victims who were largely poor and black, called into question something equally important to Mr. Bush: his compassion.
She goes on to quote James Thurber a presidential scholar who notes that this is a critical moment in the Bush presidency and that “it will be in every textbook”.
The gravitas of Bush’s recent radio address shows that he is well aware of the significance of the ongoing Katrina storm. He also knows full well that what is wiping him off the political map now as then are his perceived lack of compassion and competence. In a carefully structured talk Bush first praises the compassionate response of ordinary Americans and puts this firmly in the context of the extraordinary “spirit of America”:
During the storm and in the days that followed, Americans responded with heroism and compassion. Coast Guard and other personnel rescued people stranded in flooded neighborhoods and brought them to high ground. Doctors and nurses stayed behind to care for their patients, and some even went without food so their patients could eat. Many of the first-responders risking their lives to help others were victims themselves — wounded healers, with a sense of duty greater than their own suffering. And across our great land, the armies of compassion rallied to bring food and water and hope to fellow citizens who had lost everything. In these and countless other selfless acts, we saw the spirit of America at its best.
He then goes on to admit not his failing or the failing of his administration but the failings of “federal, state, and local governments”
Unfortunately, Katrina also revealed that federal, state, and local governments were unprepared to respond to such an extraordinary disaster. And the floodwaters exposed a deep-seated poverty that has cut people off from the opportunities of our country. So last year I made a simple pledge: The federal government would learn the lessons of Katrina, we would do what it takes, and we would stay as long as it takes, to help our brothers and sisters build a new Gulf Coast where every citizen feels part of the great promise of America.
His sudden jump to the first person pledge takes him into the rhetorical zone of the previous paragraph with his pledge’s “great promise of America” neatly matching the previous paragraph’s “spirit of America at its best”. He thus tries to rhetorically insulate himself from the institutional failings and link himself with the heroism and courage of ordinary Americans.
However as Michael Gawenda reports in the Sydney Morning Herald for those from the poorest and most devastated areas of New Orleans Bush’s promise counts for little.
In the Lower Ninth Ward, Bush is unlikely to find many people who feel part of this great promise. Indeed, he is unlikely to find too many people at all. Like much of the city’s poorer neighbourhoods, it remains a devastated wasteland in which there is still no electricity and where only a fraction of toxic debris – all that was left of the houses – has been removed.
When the Herald visited the Lower Ninth Ward a few months ago, a three-man emergency agency crew was just beginning the task of removing wrecked cars, at a rate of three or four a day. With up to 100,000 cars needing to be removed, the process could take years.
Like a number of other commentators Gawenda also notes the rise of conspiracy theories:
There are still widespread rumours of a secret plan cooked up by the Administration and the New Orleans City Council not to rebuild the poorer, lower-lying areas of New Orleans which for some people, is the explanation for the fact that so little has been done to rebuild these neighbourhoods.
The film director Spike Lee, in his four-hour film When the Levees Broke, makes the case, admittedly without much evidence, that the Administration is determined to use the Katrina disaster to rid New Orleans of poverty and of its black population. The film has just been shown on US television.
Lee even raises the possibility that the levees were smashed on purpose so the black neighbourhoods would be flooded, a conspiracy theory widely believed in many black communities.
It shows how deep is the distrust of Bush, how widespread the hostility and anger towards him and his Administration among blacks after Katrina.
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