September 11, 2005


How Bush Blew It:
Bureaucratic timidity. Bad phone lines. And a failure of imagination. Why the government was so slow to respond to catastrophe. (Evan Thomas, 9/19/05, Newsweek)

It's a standing joke among the president's top aides: who gets to deliver the bad news? Warm and hearty in public, Bush can be cold and snappish in private, and aides sometimes cringe before the displeasure of the president of the United States, or, as he is known in West Wing jargon, POTUS. The bad news on this early morning, Tuesday, Aug. 30, some 24 hours after Hurricane Katrina had ripped through New Orleans, was that the president would have to cut short his five-week vacation by a couple of days and return to Washington. The president's chief of staff, Andrew Card; his deputy chief of staff, Joe Hagin; his counselor, Dan Bartlett, and his spokesman, Scott McClellan, held a conference call to discuss the question of the president's early return and the delicate task of telling him. Hagin, it was decided, as senior aide on the ground, would do the deed.

The president did not growl this time. He had already decided to return to Washington and hold a meeting of his top advisers on the following day, Wednesday. This would give them a day to get back from their vacations and their staffs to work up some ideas about what to do in the aftermath of the storm. President Bush knew the storm and its consequences had been bad; but he didn't quite realize how bad. [...]

Most presidents keep a devil's advocate around. Lyndon Johnson had George Ball on Vietnam; President Ronald Reagan and Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, grudgingly listened to the arguments of Budget Director Richard Darman, who told them what they didn't wish to hear: that they would have to raise taxes. When Hurricane Katrina struck, it appears there was no one to tell President Bush the plain truth: that the state and local governments had been overwhelmed, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was not up to the job and that the military, the only institution with the resources to cope, couldn't act without a declaration from the president overriding all other authority.

The war in Iraq was a failure of intelligence. The government's response to Katrina—like the failure to anticipate that terrorists would fly into buildings on 9/11—was a failure of imagination. On Tuesday, within 24 hours of the storm's arrival, Bush needed to be able to imagine the scenes of disorder and misery that would, two days later, shock him when he watched the evening news. He needed to be able to see that New Orleans would spin into violence and chaos very quickly if the U.S. government did not take charge—and, in effect, send in the cavalry, which in this case probably meant sending in a brigade from a combat outfit, like the 82nd Airborne, based in Fort Bragg, N.C., and prepared to deploy anywhere in the world in 18 hours.

Even as hindsight this is ridiculous. Any president who was prepared to send combat troops to an American city every time there was a disaster would be more dangerous than nature itself. And the idea that Dick Darman did the men he served or the nation a favor by getting them to raise taxes is just reflexive liberal tripe. If you're going to have a Devil's advocate you'd better realize his counsel is evil.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 11, 2005 6:16 PM

It is illustrative that Evan Thomas thinks the 82nd Airborne would be able to solve scenes of violence and chaos. But maybe what he really wanted was a bunch of white soldiers shooting poor black boys -- a nice Gaza moment for a photo spread in Newsweek.

Those guys are very good at creating violence and chaos -- something a Newsweek reporter seems incapable of grasping.

Posted by: Randall Voth at September 12, 2005 5:10 AM

Had Bush invoked the Insurrection Act Newsweek would be complaining about Caesarism.

I remember back in the 60s there was a debate about whether the news media should practice straight reporting or advocacy journalism. Not much doubt now as to which side has won.

Posted by: George B at September 12, 2005 11:29 AM