It wasn’t just that President Bush told Diane Sawyer, “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees” in that television interview. It was the way he said it.
He seemed disinterested, disengaged from everything that was going on in New Orleans. It was, after all, only worth a fly-by in Air Force One, as though there were no people down there in all that muddy, brown water.
In the Sept. 12 issue of The New Republic, Robert Kaplan writes that Americans have lost a sense of community, that we are no longer committed to each other in a way that leads to “national greatness.” The outpouring of support for victims of Hurricane Katrina these past weeks and of Sept. 11 four years ago cause me to question that premise, although Kaplan argues that after a surge of compassion Americans went back to their self-interested lives.
If there is a weakening of compassion for our fellow citizens, it may well be trickling down from the top. Four years ago, Bush visibly showed that he cared and that he would lead standing on a pile of rubble in New York City. We saw none of that the past two weeks in New Orleans and the along the Gulf Coast.
The president seems to be scrambling now to show that he’s going to take charge, even accepting responsibility for the mistakes of the federal government earlier this week. But somehow you don’t get a sense that the president really cares, that he understands that people’s lives have been ruined by this disaster. The compassion just doesn’t come through. Determination to crack heads, maybe, but little if any empathy for victims.
We see that in the latest Time/CNN poll, released two days ago. Fifty-four percent still disapprove of the way the president is handling the Katrina disaster. His rating as a “strong leader,” which have been his bulwark as support for the war in Iraq and the economy, has dropped as well. 60 percent of Americans called him a strong leader on Aug. 30, 52 percent on Sept. 11.
One of the most fascinating things out of this poll is the evidence that Americans feel the pain of New Orleans residents. While only slightly fewer believe state and local agencies did a poor job than believe federal agencies did (63 percent believe federal agencies bungled the job, 59 percent think state and local groups were inept), they give much higher personal marks to the locals.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin gets a 43 percent favorable to 34 percent unfavorable score. Now, if you were running for reelection those are not numbers that would make you happy, but they’re a lot better than the scores given those higher on the food chain. Former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown, as you’d expect, scores only a 19 percent positive. His boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, does only slightly better, with 34 percent positive, and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) rates an anemic 32 percent.
I would suggest there are two reasons Nagin and the local leaders get the benefit of the doubt. First, they were clearly victims. They visibly showed pain and compassion for their neighbors. They cried for their city. They may have been slow to call for evacuation, there may have been school busses parked in flooded lots, the police may not have shown up for work, but you knew they were angry and passionate about it.
Second, they represented New Orleans. Yes, the storm wiped out a huge swath of the Gulf Coast, but the television images were of New Orleans. The city is not just the home of Mardi Gras and the Jazz Festival and the good times Bush joked about at the airport. It is deeply woven into the fabric of America.
We fought both the Spanish and the English for it. We paid the French a fortune to leave it to us. It was where the plainspoken folk of the Great Plains sent their wheat and corn and cattle — the market that made their farms viable. It is where we import most of our oil and foreign purchases. There are those who will argue that it is the most important port in all of America, and no one can doubt that it is in the top three.
A treasured piece of American history is gone. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of lives have been lost. When the president speaks to the American people tonight, he would do well to remember that emotional tie. His message should not just be about putting a team in charge that can handle a disaster. It is about restoring our heartland and salvaging some decency for thousands of displaced families. It is about compassion.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy.