Blogs > HNN > Isn't It Better to Fix New Orleans than to Burn Bush?

Sep 4, 2005 2:00 pm

Isn't It Better to Fix New Orleans than to Burn Bush?

President Bush must be scratching his head these days, pondering the mysterious physics of presidential popularity, which often defy the laws of gravity. Early on in his administration, John F. Kennedy was equally confused when he and his administration failed in the Bay of Pigs -– yet his popularity increased!

For Bush, the illogic seems to go like this –- after September 11, Bush’s popularity soared, even though the tragedy may have been preventable had Bush in his first eight months -– and Bill Clinton in his entire eight years -– been more vigilant on the terrorism question in general and the Osama Bin Laden file in particular. Now, with New Orleans devastated by what we used to call, in more believing times, an “act of God,” Bush seems to be bearing the brunt of the blame –- and may see his popularity plummet as a result!

It’s easy, during this trough in public confidence in Bush and his administration, to turn the New Orleans tragedy into a symbol of all that is wrong with Bush and the Republicans. This certainly seems to be the New York Times spin of the day, with Maureen Dowd blaming a combination of “limited government with incompetent government” (see, Dowd, “The United States of Shame,” which as of Saturday night was the “most emailed article” in the Times) and a news analysis speaking of a “massive administration failure.”

There certainly have been enough White House mistakes to feed these stories – and political scientists must be chomping at the bit, eager to trot out their “Second-term-lame-duck-failure,” theories. But a more honest, less partisan, and far more accurate analysis of what’s going on this week would invite discussion of various other factors including:

  • the unprecedented magnitude of the disaster, which was indeed a “natural” disaster, if not an “act of God.”
  • The deeper problem of a broader national unwillingness to think ahead, and budget ambitiously for infrastructure - the levees were no stronger during the Clinton administration, FEMA probably was no more competent – to blame Bush, partially, is legitimate, but he has many other “unindicted co-conspirators” then, including his predecessor(s) and his constituents.
  • The assumption in the modern world that all problems are preventable and the tendency to exaggerate the roles of human agency, governmental ability, and presidential efficacy in approaching so many problems
  • America’s fragile, even frayed, social fabric, reflected by the quick descent into looting and gang warfare, and the seeming passivity of so many in the Superdome to take charge and organize themselves…
  • The American media’s addiction to the negative rather than the positive – we have heard all the horror stories – are there more positive stories of selflessness and self-sacrifice to balance them out? what, ultimately, is the accurate ledger – and who could possibly judge?
  • The pathologies of racial politics – some African-American leaders have been quick to accuse the Administration – and the country -- of acting too slowly because the victims are black and poor. Aside from the fact that there are so many mitigating and contributing factors that this harsh claim reflects so much more about the accusers’ lack of faith in their government and their country (itself a worthy topic of analysis), than anything else, it’s also accompanied by the uncomfortable public silence regarding the racial identity of the looters – at least as seen on the media – and what that may show about the culture and subdivision of society from which the looters emerged.

In short, there are many ideological, anthropological, sociological, and epistemological dimensions to this “perfect storm,” but the most alluring logic for the media and partisans to follow will be a blame-the-White-House bums approach. If this spurs the Bush Administration to be more ever more effective in helping the unfortunate citizens of New Orleans, it’s all for the best. If, however, it simply distracts the Bushies from doing what they need to do during a tragic time for so many, we will have once again witnessed the triumph of spin over substance, with unfortunate results…

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Oscar Chamberlain - 9/6/2005

A few thoughts for everyone here.

1. New York suffered many horrors on 9/11, but there was food there. By 9/12 people could move to and from Manhattan, though I think security made this far more difficult than usual. Most of all, there was no flood water--and pretty foul flood water at that--inexorably rising up. When there is no sign of help, that's a Pit and the Pendulum situation.

In short, except for the people in the direct vicinity of the WTC (or the Pentagon), I think that the situation in New Orleans was far more terrifying for the people left behind than 9/11 was for New Yorkers.

2. Poor people have problems stockpiling food. It's called poverty.

3. It is true that among the people trapped and hungry were people who could have prepared better. Yes, they have some responsibility for their situation. But some things, like the breakdown of police order, were not easily predictable. Certainly no authorities at any level expected it.

4. Alonzo, you have a good point about the police, but here again, I think we need to find out more of what happened before we assume malfeasance. Again, this was a pretty horrible situation.

5. We have no idea what the balance was between looting and self-sacrifice yet. So why are people outside the area acting like they do know?

6. One example of our lack of knowledge: There is looting and there is looting. If someone trapped in a flood takes bottled water and food for themselves and their family from an abandoned store, I'm inclined toward mercy myself. If someone is ripping off non-essentials, or is robbing others of essentials that they need to survive, that is another thing entirely.

6. It is becoming pretty clear that FEMA did screw up in significant ways in the early period. However, as with the looting question, I'm willing to wait a bit before making that a firm conclusion or for alotting responsibility among all the agencies involved.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/5/2005

Sergio, I'm sorry, but you simply don't recall that it was a problem after 9/11 in NYC. It was. The media reported that it was, but the story of the disaster overwhelmed coverage of the lootage.

Sergio Ramirez - 9/5/2005

It does, however, look like looting and lawlessness was (is?) a real problem in New Orleans. It simply wasn't in New York.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/5/2005

With all due respect, did Rudolph Giuliani have an evacuation plan for NYC? Did the right-wing pundits focus on looting in NYC after 9/11 to anything like the extent that they did in New Orleans? Since the Governor of Louisiana declared a state of emergency very early in the game and the Bush administration simply denied that fact, I'm afraid that you've simply joined the Bush administration apologists whose public relations strategy in the face of shameful delays is "blame the locals."

Alonzo L Hamby - 9/5/2005

Ralph, these are nice sentiments, and I respect the spirit in which you make them. But it seems to me that decisions made by the Mayor (no evacuation plan for people without transportation; use of the Superdome without proper facilities) and the Governor (a slow and inadequate response) created much of the crisis. The Washington bureaucracy acted like most bureaucracies, and more red tape cutting should have been done by someone. But blame needs to be honestly apportioned regardless of "ethnic and political" identities.
And, whatever the (disputed) extent of desertions from the New Orleans police, there can be no excuse for it. Just as there is no legitimate excuse for stealing anything not necessary to survival. Law officers have an imperative of duty in this situation, just as much as soldiers.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/5/2005

Professor Hamby, I urge you to consider that, in 9/11, there was a political and ethnic kinship between leadership in DC and in NYC, while, in 8/29, the political and ethnic differences worked to the disadvantage of impoverished local people. Washington's failure to suspend bureaucratic red tape in order to save lives and property in New Orleans is a pure disgrace. White privilege tut-tuts over lawlessness in New Orleans, when two policemen had already committed suicide and two hundred others walked off the job -- in hopelessness and despair over having lost their families, their homes. White privilege urges them to shoot on sight, when killing looters only adds to the body count when there's nowhere to put bodies and no where to lock up prisoners.

Alonzo L Hamby - 9/5/2005

Is it just possible that the city administration of New Orleans and the government of Louisiana deserve considerable blame, what with their own botched plans for evacuation, sheltering at the Superdome, and inability to establish anything resembling command and control in the first 24-48 hours of this disaster?
I am especially intrigued that the mayor wants to give his police force (presumably only those who showed up for duty) R & R in Las Vegas while other emergency workers at all levels and mostly from outside the city are working around the clock.

Oscar Chamberlain - 9/4/2005


Largely a good corrective.

However, I think you may lean too far the other way. While Americans generally are not great at giving our infrastructure what it deserves, Republican spending priorities and their general all-taxes-are-evil mantra has done much to make it harder to so budget.

Second, FEMA has become part of the Department of Homeland Security. It is entirely possible that the reorganization has not been helpful, and this would be the first extreme test.

Mike A Mainello - 9/4/2005

Mr. Troy, an excellent, reasoned analysis. I am willing to bet you and Mr. Kimball don't see eye to eye on many things. I look forward to reading your posts in the future.

Jeffrey P. Kimball - 9/4/2005

If criticism of the Bush administration for its actions is warranted by rhe reality that some of us foresaw and the realilty we seen unfolding now, then it is useful and valid to criticize. We can multi-task. We can criticize AND help the survivors and simultaneously help to rebuild the city. Justifiable criticism--and I think criticism is clearly justifiable--can help us improve our awarness and our response to future crisis. I would have hoped that by now we would have learned from experience that it is when citizens make noise (responsibly), then problems may get corrected and those responsible may be held responsible. Bush is reacting now BECAUSE of criticism. I DO NOT understand how criticism of the critics is constructive (unless the critics are wrong). THAT is distracting.