I found myself very annoyed today at the New York Times' account of the Bush administration's frantic political damage control after their sluggish response to the Gulf Coast devastation. Read that article and this one, too:
The effort is being directed by Mr. Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, and his communications director, Dan Bartlett. . . .
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. . . .
One Republican with knowledge of the effort said that Mr. Rove had told administration officials not to respond to Democratic attacks on Mr. Bush's handling of the hurricane in the belief that . . . the administration should not appear to be seen now as being blatantly political. As with others in the party, this Republican would discuss the deliberations only on condition of anonymity because of keen White House sensitivity about how the administration and its strategy would be perceived.
In a reflection of what has long been a hallmark of Mr. Rove's tough political style, the administration is also working to shift the blame away from the White House and toward officials of New Orleans and Louisiana who, as it happens, are Democrats.
In other words, The Buck Stops Anywhere But Here. NIMOO -- Not In My Oval Office.
Conservatives will say I should be annoyed at The New York Times. And it's true that one can feel the paper barely containing its glee at the President's troubles. (But why would highly placed Republicans talk anonymously to the Times if they weren't also unhappy with his performance?)
I've had a couple of long e-mails from my Mormon (convert) friend, a Vietnam vet and staunch Republican who had a long career in military intelligence and now consults in both that field and business intelligence, and who is deeply involved in the Mormon Church's highly organized disaster relief efforts. He has told me in detail about the daunting logistics both of the LDS relief operations, and of those that had to be mounted by local, state and federal governments while tripping over each other. It's enough to silence easy criticism. I'm waiting for his permission to post these highly concrete and informative e-mails, but I don't think he would mind my posting this part:
The day that Jesse Jackson, Bishop Jakes, some no-name rapper or Bill O’Reilly get off their asses, come down here and take the chain saw out of the hands of one of the thousands of volunteers who are laboring in high heat and humidity – and will continue doing so for the coming months – is the day that they can run off at the mouth; the day that any one of that ilk comes down and wades through the slime and helps drag a dead body out of a moldy, and distinctly unsafe, building that’s about to fall around their ears – is the day that they can carp and criticize; the day that one of them can set down a helicopter after flying 20 hour days and just pause momentarily to wonder how life is for their families elsewhere in the damaged areas – is the day that they can lay claim to speaking for anyone but themselves and their popularity ratings. Sorry if there’s a scintilla of invective here, but when we turn on the tube to get a report that’ll help us do things better for people down here and instead only get ranting and ravings from people who couldn’t do a tenth of what these relief workers - military, civilian agency, charitable organizations, just plain old citizens – are doing every day, then they’re only serving themselves; they’re surely not serving anyone else. Maybe there’s a special corner of hell reserved for them.
Point taken. This has gone a long way toward convincing me that the biggest problem with the government response (other than FEMA, which sounds like it should be scrapped and rebuilt from scratch) was a problem of perception. Which is strange, because normally the Bush operation is so good at perception management. The President needed to immediately display concern and command, to go straight to Washington (as he did to sign Terri Schiavo's bill!) instead of heading west to Arizona to barnstorm. Even if there was nothing that could be done both immediately and effectively to relieve the suffering of the people without food, water, or security in the Convention Center, the President and the head of Homeland Security should have known they were there! The cable news channels were broadcasting live from the scene! Maybe a few administration types needed to be embedded with the media, for a change?
So what got into them, not even to make the kinds of inspiring and encouraging noises that can keep people hanging on while cumbersome assets are swung into place? What combination of complacency, arrogance, stress, and vacation? President Bush has never seemed so out of touch -- and "seemed" is everything in the agonizing interval between disaster and response. In fact, he reminded me a great deal of his Daddy. Dubya may play the role of a g-droppin' red-state regular guy, but he's exposed himself as a patrician rich boy, without a clue of what it is to be poor. Leaving the ranch only to head west was like GHWB in a boat off Kennebunkport during Gulf War I, declaring, "I can run the war from here." Laughing about sitting on Trent Lott's rebuilt back porch was like GHWB exclaiming over a supermarket bar-code scanner. Both Bushes look sweet and emotional when they actually get around to hugging little black kids, but really understanding hardship is one place where Bad Boy Bill has them both beat all to hell.
So, a few days late, they've scrambled to make the kind of show of competence and concern that was needed right at the beginning. They're helped by the fact that the relief operation is now well under way. What really burns me, though, is the strong impression that politics is the alpha and omega of this administration. Their first concern does not appear to be the country. Their first concern appears to be consolidating power semipermanently in Republican hands. Now, they may sincerely (if conveniently) believe that's best for the country. But three of the centerpieces of the traditional conservative prescription for national health -- smaller government, fiscal responsibility, and foreign-policy toughness coupled with pragmatism -- have already flown out the window. They may be getting rid of the nanny state, but they're replacing it with the nunny state. (It'll smack your hand with a ruler if you touch yourself.) They seem mostly intent on doing whatever it takes to hold their governing coalition -- the hawks and the homo-hawks -- together. They're even ready to abandon Iraq to save the 2006 elections.
Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. Somebody, please photoshop Karl's head onto the Wizard's body . . .
UPDATE: Marvelous reportage linked and quoted at Richard Lawrence Cohen on the arrival of Katrina evacuees in Austin, Texas. The vacuum one of them describes is of any local first response; the first help they saw was Coast Guard helicopters. It's not clear whether this was due to ill-preparedness or to the extent and speed of the devastation.