Finally fooling none of the people

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THERE’S NEVER a terrorist around when you need one. Even a couple of suspicious-looking foreigners playing soccer near the Superdome as Katrina began to make landfall might have done the trick to get this easily distracted president focused. The war on terror is, after all, George W. Bush’s obsession, obliterating any other consideration of the nation’s well-being.

With a terrorist sighting, Bush likely would not have lingered on his Crawford ranch vacation, which he interrupted only for politicking and fundraising opportunities. Nor would Condoleezza Rice have gone shoe shopping while the world witnessed the sorry spectacle of the Gulf Coast in deadly disarray. And surely Donald Rumsfeld, who blithely attended a San Diego Padres game as New Orleans was filling with water, wouldn’t have dithered for days before sending in troops to aid desperate Americans.

Even if our high officials bothered to care about the poor, mostly black victims of Katrina enough to change their schedules, the administration would probably have bungled the relief effort anyway, because the Federal Emergency Management Agency is now run by political hacks appointed by Bush who know zilch about disaster relief.


“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” the president said to Michael Brown a few days before the FEMA chief was relieved of his oversight of the relief efforts after massive public pressure over the agency’s response to the hurricane. Brown, who reportedly doctored his unimpressive resume and didn’t have a background in emergency management, resigned Monday. He had secured this plum job because he was a college buddy of his predecessor, Joe Allbaugh, who managed Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign.

During the Clinton years, FEMA was turned into a model of efficiency, as demonstrated after the Northridge earthquake and the Oklahoma City bombing. How bizarre, then, that in the wake of 9/11, the administration handicapped FEMA by axing its Cabinet-level status, turning it back into what some call a “turkey farm” for patronage jobs and slashing its budget because, as Allbaugh complained, it had become “an oversized entitlement program.”

Then there is the fact that the first-responder corps has been vastly depleted by Bush’s misadventure in Iraq. Visiting New Orleans on Monday, Bush argued that “it is preposterous to claim that the engagement in Iraq meant there weren’t enough troops” to help with hurricane relief. Oh yeah? Tell that to the nearly 35% of Louisiana’s Army and Air National Guard forces and 37% of Mississippi’s National Guard troops deployed abroad, mostly in Iraq. “Had [they] been at home and not in Iraq, their expertise and capabilities could have been brought to bear,” said Army Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, the National Guard Bureau’s chief, referring to the critical first hours of the disaster.

Unfortunately, what the Bush White House is good at when it comes to national security is providing flash over substance, as Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana found out the hard way. After riding in a helicopter with the president and seeing machinery apparently working on the breached 17th Street levee, she was shocked the next day to find the work mysteriously stopped. “Flying over this critical spot again this morning, less than 24 hours later, it became apparent that yesterday we witnessed a hastily prepared stage set for a presidential photo opportunity; and the desperately needed resources we saw were this morning reduced to a single, lonely piece of equipment,” said the senator in a press release.

For far too long, this kind of shenanigan worked well for Bush, allowing him to narrowly win a second term. His administration was asleep at the switch on 9/11 even though “the system was blinking red,” according to the then-CIA chief. Bush grabbed a bullhorn at ground zero and remade himself as a “war president” -- and suffered no real political damage from the failure to either capture Osama bin Laden or find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

But, as one of this nation’s greatest war presidents said, you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. With the Iraq war grinding on with no end in sight and the postmortems of the Katrina debacle showing the White House and Homeland Security Department to have been as confused and inept as FEMA itself, Bush’s support in several national polls has continued a steady plunge to below 40%. A Newsweek poll found that, for the first time, less than a majority of Americans felt Bush possesses “strong leadership qualities,” his signature claim to fame. Boy, have they got that right.