Message: I Care About the Black Folks

By FRANK RICH New York Times

September 18, 2005

ONCE Toto parts the curtain, the Wizard of Oz can never be the wizard again. He is forever Professor Marvel, blowhard and snake-oil salesman. Hurricane Katrina, which is likely to endure in the American psyche as long as L. Frank Baum's mythic tornado, has similarly unmasked George W. Bush.

The worst storm in our history proved perfect for exposing this president because in one big blast it illuminated all his failings: the rampant cronyism, the empty sloganeering of "compassionate conservatism," the lack of concern for the "underprivileged" his mother condescended to at the Astrodome, the reckless lack of planning for all government operations except tax cuts, the use of spin and photo-ops to camouflage failure and to substitute for action.

In the chaos unleashed by Katrina, these plot strands coalesced into a single tragic epic played out in real time on television. The narrative is just too powerful to be undone now by the administration's desperate recycling of its greatest hits: a return Sunshine Boys tour by the surrogate empathizers Clinton and Bush I, another round of prayers at the Washington National Cathedral, another ludicrously overhyped prime-time address flecked with speechwriters' "poetry" and framed by a picturesque backdrop. Reruns never eclipse a riveting new show.

Nor can the president's acceptance of "responsibility" for the disaster dislodge what came before. Mr. Bush didn't cough up his modified-limited mea culpa until he'd seen his whole administration flash before his eyes. His admission that some of the buck may stop with him (about a dime's worth, in Truman dollars) came two weeks after the levees burst and five years after he promised to usher in a new post-Clinton "culture of responsibility." It came only after the plan to heap all the blame on the indeed blameworthy local Democrats failed to lift Mr. Bush's own record-low poll numbers. It came only after America's highest-rated TV news anchor, Brian Williams, started talking about Katrina the way Walter Cronkite once did about Vietnam.

Taking responsibility, as opposed to paying lip service to doing so, is not in this administration's gene pool. It was particularly shameful that Laura Bush was sent among the storm's dispossessed to try to scapegoat the news media for her husband's ineptitude. When she complained of seeing "a lot of the same footage over and over that isn't necessarily representative of what really happened," the first lady sounded just like Donald Rumsfeld shirking responsibility for the looting of Baghdad. The defense secretary, too, griped about seeing the same picture "over and over" on television (a looter with a vase) to hide the reality that the Pentagon had no plan to secure Iraq, a catastrophic failure being paid for in Iraqi and American blood to this day.

This White House doesn't hate all pictures, of course. It loves those by Karl Rove's Imagineers, from the spectacularly lighted Statue of Liberty backdrop of Mr. Bush's first 9/11 anniversary speech to his "Top Gun" stunt to Thursday's laughably stagy stride across the lawn to his lectern in Jackson Square. (Message: I am a leader, not that vacationing slacker who first surveyed the hurricane damage from my presidential jet.)

The most odious image-mongering, however, has been Mr. Bush's repeated deployment of African-Americans as dress extras to advertise his "compassion." In 2000, the Republican convention filled the stage with break dancers and gospel singers, trying to dispel the memory of Mr. Bush's craven appearance at Bob Jones University when it forbade interracial dating. (The few blacks in the convention hall itself were positioned near celebrities so they'd show up in TV shots.) In 2004, the Bush-Cheney campaign Web site had a page titled "Compassion" devoted mainly to photos of the president with black people, Colin Powell included.

Some of these poses are re-enacted in the "Hurricane Relief" photo gallery currently on display on the White House Web site. But this time the old magic isn't working. The "compassion" photos are outweighed by the cinéma vérité of poor people screaming for their lives. The government effort to keep body recovery efforts in New Orleans as invisible as the coffins from Iraq was abandoned when challenged in court by CNN.

But even now the administration's priority of image over substance is embedded like a cancer in the Katrina relief process. Brazenly enough, Mr. Rove has been officially put in charge of the reconstruction effort. The two top deputies at FEMA remaining after Michael Brown's departure, one of them a former local TV newsman, are not disaster relief specialists but experts in P.R., which they'd practiced as advance men for various Bush campaigns. Thus The Salt Lake Tribune discovered a week after the hurricane that some 1,000 firefighters from Utah and elsewhere were sent not to the Gulf Coast but to Atlanta, to be trained as "community relations officers for FEMA" rather than used as emergency workers to rescue the dying in New Orleans. When 50 of them were finally dispatched to Louisiana, the paper reported, their first assignment was "to stand beside President Bush" as he toured devastated areas.

The cashiering of "Brownie," whom Mr. Bush now purports to know as little as he did "Kenny Boy," changes nothing. The Knight Ridder newspapers found last week that it was the homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, not Mr. Brown, who had the greater authority to order federal agencies into service without any request from state or local officials. Mr. Chertoff waited a crucial, unexplained 36 hours before declaring Katrina an "incident of national significance," the trigger needed for federal action. Like Mr. Brown, he was oblivious to the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the convention center, confessing his ignorance of conditions there to NPR on the same day that the FEMA chief famously did so to Ted Koppel. Yet Mr. Bush's "culture of responsibility" does not hold Mr. Chertoff accountable. Quite the contrary: on Thursday the president charged Homeland Security with reviewing "emergency plans in every major city in America." Mr. Chertoff will surely do a heck of a job.

WHEN there's money on the line, cronies always come first in this White House, no matter how great the human suffering. After Katrina, the FEMA Web site directing charitable contributions prominently listed Operation Blessing, a Pat Robertson kitty that, according to I.R.S. documents obtained by ABC News, has given more than half of its yearly cash donations to Mr. Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network. If FEMA is that cavalier about charitable donations, imagine what it's doing with the $62 billion (so far) of taxpayers' money sent its way for Katrina relief. Actually, you don't have to imagine: we already know some of it was immediately siphoned into no-bid contracts with a major Republican donor, the Fluor Corporation, as well as with a client of the consultant Joe Allbaugh, the Bush 2000 campaign manager who ran FEMA for this White House until Brownie, Mr. Allbaugh's college roommate, was installed in his place.

It was back in 2000 that Mr. Bush, in a debate with Al Gore, bragged about his gubernatorial prowess "on the front line of catastrophic situations," specifically citing a Texas flood, and paid the Clinton administration a rare compliment for putting a professional as effective as James Lee Witt in charge of FEMA. Exactly why Mr. Bush would staff that same agency months later with political hacks is one of many questions that must be answered by the independent investigation he and the Congressional majority are trying every which way to avoid. With or without a 9/11-style commission, the answers will come out. There are too many Americans who are angry and too many reporters who are on the case. (NBC and CNN are both opening full-time bureaus in New Orleans.) You know the world has changed when the widely despised news media have a far higher approval rating (77 percent) than the president (46 percent), as measured last week in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll.

Like his father before him, Mr. Bush has squandered the huge store of political capital he won in a war. His Thursday-night invocation of "armies of compassion" will prove as worthless as the "thousand points of light" that the first President Bush bestowed upon the poor from on high in New Orleans (at the Superdome, during the 1988 G.O.P. convention). It will be up to other Republicans in Washington to cut through the empty words and image-mongering to demand effective action from Mr. Bush on the Gulf Coast and in Iraq, if only because their own political lives are at stake. It's up to Democrats, though they show scant signs of realizing it, to step into the vacuum and propose an alternative to a fiscally disastrous conservatism that prizes pork over compassion. If the era of Great Society big government is over, the era of big government for special interests is proving a fiasco. Especially when it's presided over by a self-styled C.E.O. with a consistent three-decade record of running private and public enterprises alike into a ditch.

What comes next? Having turned the page on Mr. Bush, the country hungers for a vision that is something other than either liberal boilerplate or Rovian stagecraft. At this point, merely plain old competence, integrity and heart might do.