The Commons is a weblog for concerned citizens of southeast Iowa and their friends around the world. It was created to encourage grassroots networking and to share information and ideas which have either been suppressed or drowned out in the mainstream media.

"But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection." (Henry V, Act V, Scene 4)

Saturday, September 03, 2005

In First Response to Crisis, Bush Strikes Off-Key Notes

September 3, 2005

In First Response to Crisis, Bush Strikes Off-Key Notes

WASHINGTON, Sept. 2 - From the moment he walked out of the Oval Office toward his helicopter on Friday morning until he left New Orleans at the end of the day, President Bush's task was to erase the hardening impression that his administration had failed to act with sufficient urgency to address the suffering of tens of thousands of people.

Mr. Bush has been imperiled politically by the deep gulf between the disturbing reality in the storm-ravaged South and what was widely perceived to be a slow federal response detached from the desperation felt on the ground.

He used his trip to try to close the perception gap and made some progress, demonstrating compassion toward those he ran into, particularly in Mississippi, which represents politically solid ground. The impact of his trip was magnified by the fact that it coincided with those of convoys carrying food, water and troops.

But the overall impression Mr. Bush gave was tentative, particularly compared with the confident visit he paid to New York four years ago, just three days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Then, he took up a bullhorn to hail rescue workers at ground zero; on Friday, he steered clear of the streets of New Orleans, whose stricken population could not be counted on to hail him with open arms.

Mr. Bush began his day by saying on the South Lawn of the White House that the results of the federal effort so far were "not acceptable." But he qualified that criticism as the day wore on, apparently out of discomfort with the implication that he was criticizing rescue and relief workers.

At times he seemed off balance, on a trip that took him to Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, and he struck a few discordant notes along the way. In Mobile, Ala., he touched only briefly on how hundreds of thousands of displaced people in the region would be housed in the weeks and months ahead, but singled out Senator Trent Lott's intention to rebuild his home in Pascagoula, Miss.

At several stops Mr. Bush appeared as concerned with bucking up the morale of government officials, like Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, as with reassuring people whose health and livelihoods were at risk. Even as he pledged to right what had gone wrong with the rescue and relief effort, he congratulated Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whom he called Brownie, for doing "a heck of a job," an evaluation not widely shared in New Orleans.

Fortuitously or by design, Mr. Bush reached the region on the very day that a huge influx of supplies and waves of troops arrived in New Orleans, palpably easing the crisis. And he generated scenes that will no doubt help repair his image, as he hugged victims of the hurricane in Biloxi, Miss., and stood near the site of the main levee breach in New Orleans.

The White House's political recovery effort extended beyond Mr. Bush. With race looming as an issue, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the most prominent African-American member of the administration, said Friday that she would travel on Sunday to her native Alabama to see the storm damage and recovery efforts.

Mr. Bush often rebounds after faltering. He performed poorly last fall in his first debate against Senator John Kerry, his Democratic opponent in the presidential race, but then did much better in the next two. It took him a few days to regain his footing and find his voice after the terrorist attacks of nearly four years ago. The iconic image of his response to 9/11 came on Sept. 14, 2001, when he stood at ground zero with that bullhorn in his hands; his uncertain performance the day of the attacks is far less remembered.

"It's natural to want to blame somebody," said Ron Kaufman, a veteran Republican strategist and lobbyist. "But I don't think that in the end, as long as he carries through with the kind of tone he set today, that he'll pay any kind of price."

Democrats made clear that however much progress the administration shows in the days ahead in dealing with the disaster, they intended to make Mr. Bush's management of the response an issue for a long time to come.

"The lack of an adequate, swift response to this emergency should not be covered up with political grandstanding and slaps on the back," said Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York. "This failure must not be swept under the rug."

Until Friday, Mr. Bush had all but invited the torrent of criticism that he was out of touch with the scale of the human tragedy unfolding in Louisiana, often sounding off-key in the context of what may prove to be the worst natural disaster the nation has suffered.

On Thursday afternoon, with New Orleans in a state of near anarchy and tens of thousands of people there pleading for help, he stood before the cameras in the Oval Office to speak of his "sympathy," his desire "to make sure I fully understand the relief efforts" and his judgment that "the federal government has got an important role to play."

Earlier, in an interview with ABC, he said no one had expected the levees in New Orleans to be breached, when in fact engineers, members of Congress and other government officials had been warning of just such a risk for years.

"Katrina took away his agenda, and maybe his image as a leader, unless he pulls it out in the next few days," said James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington. "His initial reaction was certainly not as quick and compassionate as a lot of people would have liked."

If Mr. Bush is to keep from having the disaster and his response to it weigh him down for much of the rest of his presidency, he will have to use it as a springboard to improve the domestic security system and quickly develop a broad, appealing vision of how to rebuild the Gulf Coast, said former Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican.

"As a test of the homeland security system, this was a failure," Mr. Gingrich said. "It's important for the president to lead the nation in saying - and he has already said - that this is unacceptable. This is not a moment to defend inadequacy. It's a moment to respond very aggressively to human suffering and establish a vision of a more secure, more prosperous Gulf Coast."

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