Monday, September 12, 2005

Katrina's latest victims

Sometime this afternoon, Michael D. Brown jumped off the roof of the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington, D.C. There was no blood splatter for the CSI squad to investigate; no police cars roared up to the building at 500 C Street S.W. But he jumped, all right. For the good of the agency, the country and, oh yeah, the president, Brown took that figurative header three days after being publicly gutted by his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, and resigned from the agency he directed, lately with disastrous results.

Michael Brown is one of the latest victims of Hurricane Katrina. At least his pain is done with. Brown goes away and does penance in the netherworld of anonymity, in our culture a fate worse than death. Then a year or two later, he'll re-emerge smarter, sharper, more personable and quicker on his feet. And he'll get a talk show and be set for life.

George Bush's pain is another matter entirely. The second term he coveted so dearly has barely started and he's facing the kind of challenges a three-term president would be hard-pressed to resolve. The first is the Real War on Terrorism, in Afghanistan, and its inevitable coupling with the War of Convenience, underway in Iraq. The second challenge, still-emerging in so many ways, is the Katrina War, the domestic struggle to rescue three states and perhaps one million human beings from the ravages of the worst natural disaster in American history -- and to do it with resources that, protestations by the Secretary of Defense notwithstanding, are stretched razorwire thin.

The third challenge is pursuit of the Image War, simply put, the battle to prove to the American people he can balance these two monstrously expensive undertakings, one of them unnecessary, and not lose credibility at home.

Malcolm Gladwell's marvelous book "The Tipping Point" explores what happens when some exigent factor ushers something -- an idea, an image, a product -- from relative anonymity to the wildfire status of a Phenomenon, for better or worse. Katrina was George Bush's tipping point: the precarious balance of foreign entanglements, global animosity, domestic racial and ethnic friction, and relative economic stasis was thrown over by a storm that blew in from the Gulf Coast and immediately assumed the center stage of his presidency for the next year. At least.

By all indications, Bush is badly losing the Image War: a succession of new polls show support for the president cratering across the board, including among Republicans. African Americans, the bloc that some say made the difference for Bush in the 2004 election -- with a turnout thought to have linked to traditional family values and support for the monogamous, heterosexual family structure -- have lately soured on Bush again, largely on his performance in the Katrina tragedy.

Sen. Barack Obama, on ABC's "This Week," found it "puzzling" that, given Bush's quick appearance at the scene of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City, his initial on-scene response to the devastation in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast was a flyover view from Air Force One. That image of detachment, overlooking the carnage from the air-conditioned confines of the presidential jet, fails to reinforce the idea that he cared very much.

There's no doubt that the Katrina War and the Image War are intertwined in the short-term mind of the public. The shooting wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, have lately taken a back seat to domestic issues; it may be hard to strategize a foreign war with total concentration when you can't see over the water in your own backyard. Such is the focus on the Katrina War that Condoleezza Rice, the nation's top diplomat, spent time handing out bottled water to survivors in her native state of Alabama.

And it's the shooting wars that are likely to return to full view between now and October, with the forthcoming elections in Iraq.

It's been said that for presidents of the United States fortunate enough to get two terms in office that the first of those terms is about policy, the political praxis of the office; the second term is about legacy, the perception of the officeholder by the public and, by extension, history.

By this yardstick, George Bush is in deep shit. With so much of the capital of his first term exhausted by Iraq, international frictions and terroristic distractions real and conjured, Bush's first term of policy was a relative disaster, with Bush presiding over a country increasingly polarized, increasingly doubtful of the mission that defines this nation and its global standing.

And then came Katrina.


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  3. Yeah, good ol George will be hard pressed to pull his image out of the mud after all this one.

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