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McCain says: Never again

Times Staff Writer

After visiting some of the crumbling, hurricane-damaged homes in this city’s Lower 9th Ward, Sen. John McCain condemned the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina Thursday as a failure in leadership that went all the way to the top.

“Never again will a disaster of this nature be handled in the terrible and disgraceful way that it was handled,” McCain said, standing in front of St. David’s Catholic Church in the neighborhood that was among the hardest hit by the 2005 hurricane.

“History will judge this president as they have earlier presidents,” the presumed Republican nominee said when asked about the effect of the hurricane response on President Bush’s legacy. " . . . All I can say is that it will never, ever again happen.”

It was some of the harshest language McCain has used to distance himself from Bush, whose approval ratings have dipped below 30% in some polls.

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On the fourth day of McCain’s tour of what he calls America’s “forgotten places,” he avoided mentioning Bush by name but was clearly promising a different kind of leadership to attract independent and Democratic voters.

“I think everybody knows how it was a failure,” McCain said of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. “There [were] unqualified people in charge. There was a total misreading of the dimensions of the disaster. There was a failure of communications. . . . I don’t think that anybody in America, hardly, is unaware of the many failings that took place.”

When asked what he would have done differently, McCain later made a veiled reference to Bush’s much criticized flyover of New Orleans in the wake of the disaster. As Bush flew back to Washington from his Texas ranch two days after the storm, Air Force One swooped to a cruising altitude of 2,500 feet so Bush could view the devastation from his plane window. “In all candor -- if I’d been president of the United States, I’d have ordered the plane landed at the nearest Air Force base and I’d have been over here,” McCain said.

White House Press Secretary Dana M. Perino said she had not seen McCain’s comments. But she said President Bush “absolutely took responsibility for any failing on the part of the federal government.”

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“At the same time,” Perino said, “there were problems at the . . . state and local levels, as well, which they have admitted to.”

McCain did not offer any new initiatives on what he’d described earlier as a fact-finding trip to New Orleans. But he did not balk at paying the price of rebuilding levees that could withstand a storm like Katrina.

During his three-block tour of the neighborhood Thursday, the campaign corralled reporters on two National Guard cargo trucks that preceded McCain -- presumably so they would not intrude on the camera crew shooting footage for commercials and a film to be shown at the Republican National Convention. McCain walked with members of the Louisiana National Guard’s 225th engineering brigade as well as a local pastor and GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Some 9th Ward homeowners were wary of McCain’s visit. Resident Mary Fontenot told McCain during his news conference that it spoke “volumes” that his campaign provided seating for the national media at the church, but not hurricane victims who might want to hear his remarks. McCain apologized.

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Diane Smith, 51, thought it was curious that McCain did not tour the more ravaged area of the Lower 9th Ward where she lives and where all that is left of many homes are the concrete walkways.

“I’m hoping some good comes out of [the visit], because we still need a lot of help here,” said Smith, who could not say whom she is supporting for president because she is a federal employee. “We’ve seen a lot of potential candidates come through.”

Democratic officials criticized McCain’s visit as a photo op, noting he opposed a spending bill that included $28 billion in hurricane relief.

Aboard his campaign bus, the Arizona senator defended such votes, saying the legislation was “partisan” and full of “unnecessary projects.”

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maeve.reston@latimes.com

James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.


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