Monday, September 19, 2005

The President's Compassion (?)

As they always seem to do when disaster strikes, Americans have responded to Hurricane Katrina with generosity for those affected. They have opened their wallets, and sometimes their homes. The Red Cross alone has received hundreds of millions of dollars in donations; its servers were overwhelmed by people trying to contribute on the internet. Celebrities have donated money and time. Former Vice President Al Gore chartered a flight to evacuate people from New Orleans to Chattanooga; he and his son flew along with the passengers.

Although President Bush constantly urges Americans to donate to the Red Cross and calls on the “armies of compassion” to respond to this disaster, it is not clear that he has taken any significant personal action of his own to respond. President Bush’s response has largely focused on political damage control and carefully choreographed photo ops, not on personal acts of kindness.

Last week, President Bush finally acknowledged personal responsibility for the tragically mismanaged response to Katrina. Even with this acknowledgement, a glaring failure remains. Why hasn’t the president made some prominent personal gesture to demonstrate concern for those his government failed? Crawford, Texas is about five hundred miles from New Orleans. The president could have opened his ranch to displaced survivors. When the president visited the distressed region, he could have taken survivors out with him on Air Force One. He could announce that he will donate half of his $400,000 salary for 2005 to the Red Cross. He would probably manage to get by; he has housing and other necessities paid for by the government, and he has substantial assets.

The president has moved slowly in responding to this tragedy. It is to be hoped that, in time, he will recognize the importance of a personal gesture of compassion. In the absence of such an act, words that aim at compassion ring hollow. Mr. Bush speaks of the importance of personal generosity, but his actions (or inactions) speak louder than his words. The actions of his one-time rival, Mr. Gore, say something quite different. Mr. Gore’s face has not flooded the airwaves; a sheriff who briefly spoke with the former Vice President said that “[Mr. Gore] was not visiting with the media. He was busy working to help the refugees.”

Bush Doesn't Know if U.S. Capable of Dealing with Terrorist Attack

President Bush made news last week when he said that “Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government, and to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility." What he said next has not been as widely remarked on, but should be a bombshell (no pun intended). The president said that he does not know if the United States is capable of dealing with a severe terrorist attack.

This is shocking news. The President of the United States has admitted he doesn’t know whether his government is prepared to deal with a severe terrorist attack. Why isn’t the media commenting more widely on it? This is a president whose 2004 campaign focused on accusing his rival John Kerry of leaving Americans unprotected against terrorist attacks. On October 22, 2004, President Bush said that John Kerry and his advisors “do not understand the enemy we face and have no idea how to win the war and keep America secure.” The Bush campaign ran a television ad (featuring a menacing pack of wolves) that accused Kerry of weakening America’s defenses and leaving Americans vulnerable. Vice President Cheney warned that if Kerry was elected, “the danger is that we’ll get hit again, that we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States.”

The “Kerry is weak on terrorism” (a/k/a “vote for Kerry and you might die”) strategy seemed to work. An ABC News/Washington Post poll taken about a month before the election showed that 59% of voters believed the United States was safer than it had been on September 11. On what ABC called Bush’s “cornerstone issue”, Bush led Kerry 54-37 percent in being trusted to handle terrorism. Exit polls showed that voters considered the threat of terrorism one of the two most important issues affecting their vote.

Now we learn, ten months after the election, that President Bush doesn’t even know whether we are capable of dealing with a severe terrorist attack. The President says that he wants to be able to answer this question. How about answering a few other questions while you’re at it. Mr. President, what have you done to prepare for the consequences of a severe attack? What emergency preparations are in place? Who has been responsible for making these preparations—was it Brownie at FEMA? Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff? Can one of them (or Brown’s replacement) assure Americans that their government is capable of helping those affected by an attack? Is protecting Americans a priority for your government? If it is, then why don’t you know if we are able to respond to a severe attack?

As long as President Bush is in the mood to be accountable, maybe he will get around to explaining to Americans why it has taken him four years since September 11 to find out whether we are prepared to deal with a severe attack. More importantly, maybe he will tell Americans what steps he will take to make us secure. Until he does, Americans should demand that he do so, immediately. How about this: no more vacations until this question is answered.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Who Needs the United States Government? (We All Do)

Over the past week, the United States government has proven incapable of providing relief to citizens in desperate need. The consequences were immediate and devastating for thousands of residents of New Orleans and other affected areas. For days, people were trapped in hellish conditions, without food, water, medicine, or sanitation. It seems certain that thousands of people died.

When disasters like Hurricane Katrina occur, Americans naturally look to the federal government for help. This is not surprising. The federal government has a budget of more than one trillion dollars. It has more than one million employees. It has an agency dedicated to emergency management. It is far bigger and has far more resources than state and local governments. It is natural that Americans expect the federal government to be the entity most capable of responding to the worst crises, including disasters like Katrina.

Sadly, those in charge -- our supposed leaders -- do not seem to understand why the federal government is essential. For the past quarter century, conservatives have hypocritically damned the federal government, even as they presided over it for most of those years. Ronald Reagan criticized wasteful federal spending, even as spending and deficits ballooned during his administrations. George W. Bush brought more of the same—denouncing the federal government as a problem to be solved by reduced spending (again, even as spending and deficits increased on his watch). This critique has given the Republican party a focus and singlemindedness Democrats have lacked. It is easy to say what the Republicans have stood for in recent decades; limited federal government has been the cornerstone of their philosophy.
The Democratic heirs to FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society have been unable to deliver an effective rejoinder to the conservative critique of national government. In 1984, Walter Mondale’s attempt to defend the Democratic vision of government became associated only with higher taxes. A decade later, Bill Clinton famously conceded that the era of big government had ended. Presidential standard bearers Al Gore and John Kerry defanged their rhetoric in order to avoid sounding like big government types.

A question, glaringly unasked over the past quarter century, has forced itself into the national consciousness over the past week: why exactly do we need the United States government? Conservative rhetoric suggested that government was more a problem than a solution, an obstacle to be removed from the path of the free market system. Of course, even conservatives did not advocate dismantling the entire government. For one thing, lavish military spending marked Republican administrations. Beyond the military, however, it was unclear that conservatives saw any part of the federal government as essential. They endorsed states’ rights at almost every turn (though not when it came to gay marriage or medical marijuana). In opposition, Democrats were unable to articulate why we need federal government.
In the flooded streets of New Orleans, we finally have a clear, resounding answer. State and city authorities were first unable to muster the resources needed to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people, then to care for and protect those left behind. Ordinary citizens stuck in the city looked, in vain, to the federal government for help. On television, they asked how the United States could deliver aid to other countries and fight a war overseas in Iraq while forsaking its own citizens.

This is an “emperor has no clothes” moment. Twenty five years of Republican rhetoric have been stripped naked. Criticizing big government sounded good when all it seemed to mean was lower taxes. But, it turns out, those taxes pay for something, and reduced spending can have very real consequences. The Bush administration cut funding for strengthening the levees in New Orleans. That decision had a human cost not factored into the budget calculus.
It is time to ask basic questions about government, questions that were asked when this country was founded, but questions that need to be asked again, after years of assault on the concept of national government. Why do we have a government at all? Why did we form a national government? Government, at its essence, means civilization. We have government for the same reason cavemen banded together into tribes, and the people of the Fertile Crescent formed cities. Government exists to make life better, less dangerous, more sane. It accomplishes collective tasks that would overwhelm individuals. A national government exists for the same reasons, and can marshal far greater resources than smaller state or local entities, taking advantage of economies of scale and a larger tax base.

The country’s founders made their reasons for forming a national government explicit in the preamble to the United States Constitution: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
During the past week, the United States government utterly failed to insure domestic tranquility or to promote the general welfare in New Orleans. After this failure, we must reexamine all of the platitudes that have become dogma over the past quarter century: that government is a problem to be reined in, not a resource; that the private sector can be counted on to fill in gaps unaddressed by government; that taxes may only be lowered, never raised; that private sector principles should be applied to the public sector. When searching for something good that could come out of this national tragedy, President Bush clumsily looked forward to the reconstruction of Trent Lott’s house in Mississippi. If we really want to hope for something good born from tragedy, we should reimagine, as our forebears once did, our national government as a force for good that will be there when its desperate citizens cry out for help.

This piece was originally published by

Thursday, September 08, 2005

What if Nothing Really Changes After Katrina?

So far, the Bush administration’s strategy for dealing with the major league screw-ups everyone with a TV witnessed last week is, basically, to hope the criticisms go away. That approach has worked in the past, when questions were raised about whether 9/11 might have been prevented or why no WMD were found in Iraq. Bush waited things out and shrugged off fallout from each would-be political albatross.

This time, one hopes, it will be different. There are signs that even some in the president’s own party recognize the enormity of the administration’s clueless, incompetent response to Katrina. Susan Collins, a Republican Senator from Maine, has described the response (in a joint statement issued with Senator Joe Lieberman) as an “immense failure”, and has promised to investigate the “lack of preparedness and inadequate response” to Katrina. David Vitter, Republican Senator from Louisiana, gave the federal government a grade of F for its response to the storm. Newt Gingrich asked how we could be confident about the government’s ability to respond to a terrorist attack when it couldn’t handle Katrina.

There will surely be an investigation. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Speaker Dennis Hastert have announced the formation of a “Hurricane Katrina Joint Review Committee” (House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says Democrats will not participate, charging the committee is set up along partisan lines designed to insulate the president from blame). But what will an investigation, what can an investigation, accomplish, if the president continues to refuse to accept and assign blame? As of now, it is not even clear that he will fire the bumbling FEMA Director, Michael Brown, who is woefully unqualified for his job and seems far out of his element (which previously involved Arabian horses). We have a president who seems congenitally incapable of admitting a mistake or holding a friend accountable. Remember last year’s debate when Bush struggled to think of a mistake he’d made? He couldn’t come up with one. Can he now? Congresswoman Pelosi says that she urged the president to fire FEMA Director Brown. The president asked her why. Pelosi responded, “because of all that went wrong, of all that didn’t go right last week.” The president’s breathtaking response was “what didn’t go right?” Even now, when thousands American citizens were abandoned by their government, left to die in the hell of the Superdome, the president can’t own up to a mistake and can’t acknowledge reality.

From where the president sits, why should he concede anything? Bush does not face another election campaign. Certainly he’d like to see his party do well in the off-year elections, but I doubt that is enough of a motivating factor to produce fundamental change in Bush’s make-up. What effect will the investigation promised by Frist and Hastert have? There was of course a commission that investigated 9/11. President Bush did not suffer any obvious negative consequences when that investigation concluded. What will a Katrina commission do? It will not ask the president to resign and it cannot force him to do anything.

What happened last week -- government officials unprepared and ignorant, thousands dead, thousands left to fend for themselves, -- is too serious for the typical months-long investigation followed by a milquetoast report that has no real effect on anything. It is clear that our government was not prepared to deal with Hurricane Katrina. What else is it unprepared to deal with? Do we have to wait for the next disaster to find out? Whether anything will really change will depend on a sustained, insistent national outcry. We owe it to those who were abandoned in New Orleans and elsewhere to make sure the president can’t shrug this one off, and that real changes in emergency preparation are made that might save lives in the future.

culture of life is a lie

The White House web site contains a brief paragraph entitled “President’s Statement on Terry Schiavo”. That statement contains this assertion: “It should be our goal as a nation to build a culture of life, where all Americans are valued, welcomed, and protected…”.

It is likely that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people died in New Orleans and other areas hit by Hurricane Katrina. Who protected them? Where is the outrage among fellow culture-of-lifers like Phyllis Schlafly, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, or Pat Robertson? Shouldn’t they have been screaming at Bush last week to snap into action, as he did with Ms. Schiavo, to do everything in his power to save thousands in the Superdome?

If it wasn’t clear before, it is painfully obvious now that the “culture of life” is a lie, a sham, a political prop. It only applies to fetuses and the privileged. It clearly does not apply to the poor, the dispossessed, the black Americans of New Orleans.

The President and his men, and women, can continue to bob and weave, using talking points like “blame game” to try to divert attention from their inaction. But the grim, naked reality cannot be denied. There is no culture of life in the United States. Poor black Americans, the needy, the old, are left to fend for themselves. If the President has the temerity to invoke his devotion to a “culture of life” in the future, he should be ignored, or jeered. And someone should remove the “President’s Statement on Terry Schiavo” from the White House website. It is an insult to those who were left to die in New Orleans.