Friday, September 30, 2005

American Tsunami IV

After Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley, after Memogate and Dan Rather, after any number of missteps over the past three years, the American press came face to face with a new challenge to its primacy and pertinence to the American people. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast one month ago yesterday, it unleashed a tide of young, eager journalists flooding the zone with the best of intentions, or at least the most uniformly competitive of intentions.

What’s emerged since then has occasioned a healthy clash of opinions on what worked right and what didn’t. As stories of this scale often do, they tell as much or more about the storyteller than they do about the subject of the story.

One of the better debates on how well the press handled the Katrina catastrophe was on the “News Hour With Jim Lehrer” this evening. Two of the participants synthesized both sides of an eager, aggressive press knee-deep in the kind of story that awakens their instinct for the fatalistic, the merciful and the bureaucratic. Their comments also illustrated the maddening Rashomon aspect of the press trying to comprehensively get its arms around a story literally exploding in real time as they reported it, an immediacy that yielded sadly astonishing errors that, again, said more about the teller of the tale than the tale being told.

Keith Woods, an editor with the New Orleans Times-Picayune and director of the Poynter Institute, said the blanket coverage of the Katrina disaster and its inescapable human tragedy revealed “a sense of passion, a sense of empathy, a sense of understanding that they were not telling an ordinary story – any more than the Sept. 11 attacks were an ordinary story.

“I like the fact that journalism understood the size of this story from the very beginning,” Woods said.

That was one part of the elephant. Hugh Hewitt, however, would have none of it. Hewitt, the founder of hughhewitt.com, a high-profile Web site of commentary, lit into Woods’ argument, and revealed another equally compelling side to the issue.

Hewitt lamented big media’s seeming inability “to dispel the lurid, the hysterical, the salaciousness of the reporting.” And in a smart repudiation of much of the media’s self-congratulations, Hewitt said the Katrina mess revealed “a wholesale collapse of the media’s own levees. They let in all the rumors, all the innuendo, all the first-person stories because they were caught up in their own emotionalism.”

And Hewitt – despite having what feels like the same predisposition toward punitive impulses for the press that’s common among social conservatives today – made maybe the telling point in the debate: journalists’ willingness to suspend the willingness to suspend disbelief.

“They reported panic-inducing, fear-inducing, hysteria-inducing mass-casualty events … the most squalid journalism you could imagine. …”

“People have to ask, why was the media so eager and willing to circulate these stories? Is it because [they] were dealing with the urban underclass, largely black, largely a community with which the elite media does not often deal, and as a result they were willing to believe stories about this community that they might not have given credence to, if it were a different situation?”

One suspects that the truth lies somewhere in the two not-quite extremes of their positions. It’s inescapable that the press, presented in just hours with the story of the year, a vast human drama, tried to hit the ground running on Katrina, saturating the region with reporters covering every vantage point, from the obligatory weather reporter leaning against Category 3 winds to the Gulf Coast embeds who hunkered down for days or weeks to look for the human dimension in depth.

Their zeal for getting the story, though, ran up against the need to get the story right. Stories from Katrina survivors took on a life of their own; gossip became exaggerations became rumors became statements from the mayor himself. The tales that emerged from the Superdome in New Orleans in the desperate hours of the evacuation began to sound like the stuff of a Brueghel painting, armies of the dead consuming the living, entrails aflame, blood running in the exits.

That the reality turned out to be far less apocalyptic raises the question of how such a disconnect between journalistic responsibility and journalists’ actions could happen. That’s the deeper question for reporters and editors going forward: Why report fictional drama, or at least drama you couldn’t verify with your own eyes, as the truth? Since when did journalists take anyone’s word for anything?

There were challenges to covering the Katrina story, a real-time news extravaganza if there ever was one. At one level American media got it: they understood intuitively that what was unfolding on the Gulf Coast was a national story of rare scale and perhaps unprecedented impact. But the media also overplayed its hand, milking a real drama by adding ninth-circle-of-hell innuendo that was unnecessary, and often a case of sloppy reporting that capitalized on the emotions of the moment.

It’s an object lesson for the next time. And there will be a next time.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The great unraveling

Comes now the news that the word schadenfreude was invented for (at least if you work in Washington): Tom DeLay, House Majority Leader, lightning rod for the conservatives on Capitol Hill and a political in-fighter with the charm of a raw pit bull, was indicted today by a Texas grand jury on a charge of conspiring to violate political fundraising laws. He is the highest-ranking member of Congress to ever face criminal prosecution.

As such, and according to the GOP’s own rules in the House, DeLay was forced to resign his leadership position, at least temporarily. House Speaker Dennis Hastert named Missouri Rep. Roy Blount to take DeLay’s position.

In one swift move, the Republican ascendancy in American politics may be said to be about over; the party reveals itself to be in the disarray some have suspected for months; the Bush second-term agenda is in tatters, forced to address long-term projects like the War in Iraq as well as sudden distracting emergencies at home; and George Bush himself, weathering more storms than anyone in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, is seen for what he truly is: a lame duck with more than three years left in his presidency.

In an analysis today in The Washington Post, Dan Balz reports that the indictment "adds to the gathering headwind that now threatens the Republicans as they look toward the 2006 elections. Whether this becomes the perfect storm that eventually swamps the GOP is far from clear a year out. But Republican strategists were nearly unanimous in their private assessments yesterday that the party must brace for setbacks next year."

You can add the DeLay debacle to the growing list of Republican targets of opportunity. Last week, it was reported that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, long the picture of soft-spoken rectitude, was under investigation for selling stock in Hospital Corporation of America, a company started by his father, two weeks before the stock went south. The Securities and Exchange Commission today announced its intention to upgrade the Frist inquiry from an informal status to one with more teeth (like subpoena powers). Frist is said to be in talks with Martha Stewart on damage control.

Combining these two fresh disasters with the still-unresolved issue of possible administration involvement in the leak involving CIA agent Valerie Plame, and it’s obvious why the high-minded objectives of the president’s agenda for the second term – Social Security, extending the tax cuts, more aggressive prosecution of the war on terrorism – may well go begging until early next year.

To some extent, we’ve seen this before; this is part of the raucous but historically formalized kabuki on the Potomac, accusation and denial, charge and countercharge. The only curious development in all of this is why we’ve heard so little from the Democrats. Perhaps it was a matter of not wanting to go on the air shrieking with glee, but none of the Democratic leadership within the House or outside it – Harry Reid, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Russ Feingold – had anything to say when the indictment came down.

Maybe it’s just a matter of pacing themselves: there’s no telling how long this investigation of DeLay could last – almost certainly through the holidays, and no one’s paying attention to anything but the holidays then. It may be the Democrats are keeping their powder dry waiting for the spring, letting the Republicans twist in the wind until then.

The Bush administration may well try to pull a rabbit out of a hat, throwing the media spotlight off DeLay and Frist with a well-timed announcement of Bush’s pick #2 for the Supremes, maybe by the end of this week or early next. But with DeLay & Frist, Katrina & Rita, the Social Security drive stuck in neutral at best, gas prices climbing on a daily basis, the war grinding on and on in Iraq with no clear exit strategy, and some generals rejecting previously hopeful scenarios of a withdrawal early next year, what’s taking shape seems to be a great unraveling of the Republican fabric, a rise of scandal, arrogance, ineptitude and miscalculation leading to what’s likely to be a winter of serious discontent.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Absence of identity

Faithful watchers of the network evening newscasts can't have escaped that feeling lately of being in a petri dish, as the object of scrutiny borne of an indulgence in the experimental. Things are hardly settled at the anchor desks of two of the traditional Big Three networks and, even with the increasing stratification of television viewers, that strikes a chord with many of those viewers, to say nothing of those advertisers hoping to occupy the eyeballs of those viewers for sixty seconds.

It had been in decliing health for years thanks to the multiplicity of choices available to television users in the new millennium; now, the end of the Three Wise Men format of broadcast news supremacy came with stunning swiftness. First, Dan Rather of CBS exited the stage, bruised by the "60 Minutes" scandal of the year before. Tom Brokaw of NBC News departed, avuncular and teary-eyed, shortly after Rather. And Peter Jennings, the elegant, affable, fallible, durable mainstay of ABC News for more than 20 years, died of lung cancer.

Thanks to a firm succession plan that was set in motion years ago, NBC News was well-prepared for Brokaw's official departure. Brian Williams had long been waiting in the wings, Brokaw's heir apparent. When Brokaw finally passed the baton, the peacock's transition proceeded without a hitch. But the other two networks are forced to deal with identity dramas central to television news in an increasingly competitive environment. Both ABC and CBS are to some extent victims of circumstances beyond their control; both are grappling with the ephemeral packaging and marketing of a face and identity that will resonate with viewers -- or not -- for years to come.

Jennings' long goodbye gave the network only months to plan for a successor, but it didn't lessen the apparently genuine shock when it happened. Jennings had given scrappy ABC an international flavor, a global panache that endured for a generation of TV journalism's defining moments. Now, it seemed, ABC was rudderless. A succession of pinch-hitters -- Charles Gibson, Elizabeth Vargas -- who had filled in for Jennings have continued to do so after his death.

ABC's absence of identity at the anchor desk is compounded by rumblings elsewhere at the network. Ted Koppel is engaging in his own craggy, scrapbook-style valedictory, as he prepares to step down as host of "Nightline" late this year. Most nights Koppel is in command, now as always. But lately -- and in strangely sudden ways -- "Nightline" morphs into something different. The network is testing different versions of the show, actually broadcasting them under the "Nightline" name. The "Nightline" formula has been tweaked by such guest hosts as Terry Moran and Chris Cuomo, and with edgier reporting from Jake Tapper, who joined ABC after a stint with Salon.

It's a risky strategy for as celebrated TV franchise; people like the familiar, they like being able to count on something. With no clear sense of the purpose for the "Nightline" experiment beyond field testing prototypes, and absolutely no sense of ABC's timetable settling on one or the other, the public might just turn and walk away. Jimmy Kimmel's not all that, you know.

CBS News' dilemma is something else again. Bob Schieffer, a veteran reporter for the network for more than 40 years, finally scrabbled his way to the top of the network news heap, with CBS naming him the anchor pro tem for CBS News after Rather's departure. By all estimations, Schieffer has more than earned a stint in the big chair; as reporter, "Face the Nation" host and symbol for folksy, dogged, accurate journalism, Schieffer deserved the anchor spot as the crowning touch on a stellar career.

But CBS has to balance the emotional with the practical; for all Schieffer's talents, it's fair to say (and he certainly would) that there's a lot more in the rear-view mirrror of his career than there is in front of him. CBS brass will do right by Schieffer; one might guess they'll give him the anchor post until the spring of '06; maybe, just maybe let him ride herd through the midterm elections in November, then gently usher him out, into perdition and "Special Reports" with a fat check in his hand. Just like Rather.

One way or another, it's all about the future. CBS is exploring various options. The new multi-intro format at the opening of the "CBS Evening News" gives viewers a flavor of who's doing what where and firmly reinforces the identity of the correspondents in the field. But the big question is: Who's the next anchor? Let the handicapping begin.

Culchavox's money, meager as it is, says that John Roberts is the true heir apparent. He's effectively acted as Dan Rather's deputy holding down the fort in New York while Rather was on assignment or on vacation. He's in the sweet spot for age, just gray enough to make advertisers comfortable without scaring off the younger demographic those advertisers are drooling for. John Roberts has been in the trenches as a reporter, as anyone who's seen him in verbal First Amendment fisticuffs in news conferences with Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan will attest. He's telegenic, well-spoken, physical, animal. It's Roberts' to lose.

Other names have circulated for some years. There's Scott Pelley, solid enough as a journalist, we suppose, but someone we can't look at without subconsciously thinking of Niles Crane on "Frasier." Harry Smith, another CBSer who's toiled at many stations of the cross. Ed Bradley, a veteran of "60 Minutes" and various correspondent roles over the years, has also been mentioned (but one suspects it's done out of deference to a long and impressive career rather than because anyone believes the suits at 30 Rock would really anoint Bradley as the first sole black news anchor of a television network that's not BET).

We'll see. Nature abhors a vacuum, and there are few vacuums like a network news program without a face. The absence of identity runs counter to people's perception of television as ordered, sensible if not logical, identifiable if not memorable. The sound you hear between now and, oh, say, February 2006 will be the sound of second shoes dropping, as two of the three broadcast network news divisions decide what they're going to be and who they're speaking to.

To invoke the medium's reigning cliche: Stay tuned.
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Image credits: Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings: Public domain.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

American Tsunami III

What the country and the Gulf Coast have grown to fear over the past three weeks now seems to be less than a day from actually happening. Tropical Storm Rita has completed its transformation into a full-blown hurricane -- it's been wobbling between Category 4 and Category 5 for the last twenty-four hours -- and is now veering toward landfall at some point between the coastlines of eastern Texas and western Louisiana. Within the last few hours, in fact, unlovely Rita has taken a turn to the northeast, and as of now may well be tacking back toward New Orleans, sodden, beleaguered New Orleans. ...

Some are beginning to call the situation in the gulf “the Katrita phenomenon,” a conflation of hurricane names that’s more than just a cute way to describe the impact from two storms three weeks apart. Both Katrina and Rita, likely to be this hurricane season’s most cataclysmic one-two punch, will have a huge and resonant impact not just on the region but on the country as a whole.

You have to consider the human tragedy of the first hurricane; it's been all but impossible to come up with a firm body watch from that one, and a second storm maybe just as bad or worse is on its way. The suffering in the Gulf Coast is starting to take on the worst aspects of a new and tragic continuum in American life, a fabric of suffering so total and smothering we can't be sure where the pain of one event ends and another begins.

Then there's the financial cost. The analyst wags on Wall Street are already talking audibly about gas at upwards of $4 a gallon by Halloween – trick or treat! – and commodities brokers have gone on the air with dire forecasts about higher costs for everything from orange juice to coffee to any number of goods brought into the port of New Orleans, the city at the mouth of the Mississippi, the national carotid artery for commerce.

The Katrita effect may have created yet another casualty. The National Enquirer, that fount of journalistic integrity, has reported that the President of the United States and heretofore teetotaler-in-chief is said to be drinking again. The Enquirer, citing family sources that are unnamed for a damn good reason, reports that in the wake of the Katrina catastrophe and the still-chaotic situation in Iraq, President Bush recently downed a Texas-sized tumbler of whiskey.

One unnamed insider told the Enquirer it was something of an open secret that Bush had been indulging before he was caught by first lady Laura Bush, who yelled “stop, George!” as the commander-in-chief put one down the hatch. "The sad fact," one source said, "is that he has been sneaking drinks for weeks now. Laura may have only just caught him, but the word is his drinking has been going on for a while in the capital. He's been in a pressure cooker for months."

Another source, ominously, told the Enquirer that a family member "told me they fear George is 'falling apart.'"

One hopes the bad-Hamlet history of Richard Nixon doesn’t repeat. We want to believe this won’t lead to W rattling around the White House a la Tricky, strolling the halls at midnight, sloshing Glenlivet on the carpet, jabbering at the portraits on the walls of the Lincoln Bedroom. But we’ll see. At a press conference earlier this week, the president looked a mite green around the gills, unusually unhealthy for a man obsessed with workouts and fitness. There were probably other reasons as well.

This was the week that the fatality count for Americans in Iraq hit another of those numerical milestones. Nineteen hundred killed in uniform. For George Bush, a man said to take every American combat death almost personally, that bloody benchmark of the war was probably bad enough.

We shouldn't wonder at his surrender to temptation in the wake of Katrina; the president may have discovered the ways in which the separate and discrete come together, reveal their interconnectedness, in ways you didn't see coming. It took something the magnitude of an apocalyptic event, and its aftermath, to renew the debate about the war in Iraq and its human and financial cost. In an instant, all the abstract talk about homeland security took on another dimension. Katrina's impact wasn't terrorism per se, despite the similarity of effect when you watched the news: the flattened landscapes, the military's frantic dispersal of goods and presence; the eyes of locals in three states, vacant of hope.

But the Homeland Security Department, the agency created to at least oversee a reaction to such disasters -- having ingested the Federal Emergency Management Agency, that body directly responsible for the federal response -- was slow to react. And people, certainly some in the three states affected so far and more around the country, wondered how much better, how much more uniform and immediate the response to Katrina might have been if such a large percentage of America's citizen soldiers weren't half a world away doing another country's business, but not their own.

Monday, September 19, 2005

American Tsunami II

On Thursday night, George Bush began the most concerted, most aggressive, most politically necessary exercise in damage control in the five years of his presidency. In full shirtsleeves mode, the president damn near marched across a verdant patch of Jackson Square in the sodden, saddened city of New Orleans and announced the start of as close to a Marshall Plan as we are likely to see in the recovery of the Gulf Coast.

The president spoke in broad strokes and general principles; he was late to take up his role as national clarifier, but by all accounts it was an effective speech, even, in some ways, a departure from the usual scripted blather. A president ill at ease with disciplining others fell on his sword Thursday night, accepting the responsibility for the disastrously haphazard initial response to the Katrina catastrophe. He went on, drilling down to get to the kernel of grand initiatives about to be unleashed: a Gulf Opportunity Zone spanning the three most affected states: Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi; and an Urban Homestead Act, by which tracts of federal land would be ceded to the survivors of Katrina free of charge, under condition of their building new homes on the sites.

The president had already committed upwards of $60 billion in immediate relief, with billions more certainly on the way. Somehow, from somewhere, the figure of $200 billion began to make the rounds of the media in the days after Bush's address. John Snow, the treasury secretary, dismissed that amount as errant, presumptious conjecture in an interview aired Saturday on Bloomberg News. And who could say for sure, with things unfolding on the ground on a daily basis -- and the hurricane season only half over?

But such ambitious ventures have foundered on the rocks of reality before, more often than not about something related to where the money goes and how widely the money gets to where it needs to go. The Sept. 12 Wall Street Journal Online reported that the Bush administration "is importing many of the contracting practices blamed for spending abuses in Iraq" to the Gulf Coast rebuilding effort, likely to be the biggest rebuilding effort in U.S. history.

"The first large-scale contracts related to Hurricane Katrina, as in Iraq, were awarded without competitive bidding, and using so-called cost-plus provisions that guarantee contractors a certain profit regardless of how much they spend," the Journal reported. With heavy hitters like Fluor and Bechtel aboard, can Halliburton be far behind? Probably not.

The administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, and the prospect for more damage if and when Tropical Storm Rita metastasizes into a full-blown hurricane itself, has led to more sharp reaction (read: piling on). The AP reported that Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards, the failed tandem of the 2004 presidential election, weighed in.

Kerry took aim with remarks he delivered at an address at Brown University. He said former FEMA Director and political suicide Michael Brown was to Hurricane Katrina “what Paul Bremer is to peace in Iraq; what George Tenet is to slam dunk intelligence ... what George Bush is to 'Mission Accomplished’ and 'Wanted Dead or Alive.’ ... The bottom line is simple: The 'we’ll do whatever it takes’ administration doesn’t have what it takes to get the job done.”

Edwards said Katrina and its aftermath made it clear that poverty is not a past-tense issue. “If the Great Depression brought forth Hoovervilles, these trailer towns may someday be known as Bushvilles,” Edwards told an audience at the Center for American Progress, a liberal D.C. think tank.

Kerry and Edwards' comments can't just be dismissed as the reflexive complaints of the guys who lost the election. At this point, their mistakes during the campaign pale in comparison with the Bushies' errors of judgment. Kerry and Edwards are in the slow process of regaining their bona fides; Sen. Hillary Clinton is in the process of slowly, quietly cultivating her own.

And one of the recovery efforts soon to be fully under way is that for the Republicans, the party with the most political damage to rebound from, and the most to lose in the midterm elections about thirteen-odd months from now.

No amount of effort from the spin merchants on the Potomac is liekly to change the popular perception -- present since Sept. 11 and recently confirmed in several opinion polls -- that the Bush administration and its proxies were asleep at the switch, again.

The American tsunami is proving to have all the characteristics of an artichoke, with the situation getting more and more serious, and more complex, as the layers of the initial tragedy fall away to reveal something heavier and scarier underneath. Tropical Storm Rita is brewing just outside the Gulf of Mexico, loitering with intent around the Florida Keys. It's frightening already to think about the worst that could happen on two fronts: from a storm that caught people unawares, and a governmental bureaucracy sporadically able to cope with the unexpected.

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.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

American Tsunami

It was the imperfect storm of the year, for sure, and maybe the decade: a collision of economic and sociological forces with a meteorological event almost apocalyptic in scale. As it approached the southeastern United States, and the achingly vulnerable Gulf Coast, you saw it in the infrared satellite photos: a white-hot pinwheel of raw energy streaming toward landfall, its motion so regular as to almost resemble breathing.

Katrina.


The storm first made itself felt a week or more before, killing 11 people in Florida as it perambulated around the Gulf of Mexico, seemingly gaining no momentum, destined to be another midlevel noisemaker with more bark than bite. Perhaps it was that complacency, or comfort, or the latent rise of the soul of a riverboat gambler that led many residents of the probable hot zone to stay put. Betsy was bad and they lived through it, they reasoned; Camille was bad, in some ways worse than Betsy, but they got through that too.

Or maybe it was the storied Southern sense of independence and fidelity to the land, so hard come by for many of its citizens. If it was worth dying for to acquire it, they figured, how can it not be worth dying for to hold onto it? Many did pull up stakes and leave, gassing up the SUVs, taking the advice of the weather professionals on the networks, the people who were calling Katrina a “catastrophic event” when it was more than a day from landfall. But others went into hunkerdown mode and stayed behind in Mississippi and Alabama.

And they stayed behind in New Orleans, black, thirty-per-cent-poor New Orleans. They lingered often with no choice, or believing they had no choice, no options beyond the government check at the end of the month, no way out of town except in the pine box they’d already resigned themselves to. They hunkered down with no alternatives in the birthplace of jazz, a city technically seven feet under water on a dry day, and hoped like hell the levees would deliver them from evil again.

+ + +

Hurricane Katrina managed to combine the biblical force of the Asian tsunami disaster and the riveting human after-spectacle of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. For the sheer scope of the disaster, still unfolding at this writing and any writing for months to come; for the forces of chaos and rage unleashed shortly after the energies of the ocean were spent against the land; for the depth of the human suffering revealed; and for the bureaucratic farragos that have snarled even the most basic attempts to feed and water a sudden diaspora of human beings, Hurricane Katrina was America’s tsunami, as powerful, as wrenching and devastating in the longest terms to this country as the cataclysmic December 26th event was to southeast Asia.

In typical American fashion, the fingerpointing has already begun, with the agencies in charge, however nominally, being readied to take the blame. The Homeland Security Department, the agency previously charged with overseeing domestic security in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, has been ham-fistedly retrofitted to resolving a situation largely beyond the scope of its creation.

And FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency now under Homeland Security control, has come under intense scrutiny, with its director, Michael Brown, the former director of International Arabian Horse Association, a patronage appointee, a resume fabulist, a woeful incompetent ill-prepared for the still-evolving challenge at hand. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff more or less formally decapitated Brown at a Sept. 9 press conference, relieving him of overseeing the Katrina relief effort, leaving him if name only -- bet the ranch -- the director of FEMA.

Chertoff's General Patton-in-shirtsleeves act couldn't conceal the way things were coming undone, or appearing to. And administration protestations couldn't hide the rising edge of fear in the eyes of President Bush, the visible flopsweat on the brow of the commander-in-chief a day or two before, the day President Bush got a briefing from the soon-to-be-headless Mr. Brown and said, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," a Beltway valedictory if there ever was one.

For the increasingly ill-at-ease George Bush and his handlers, it’s altogether inescapable now and will be more so in the future: Whether they like it or not, the Bush administration has a new agenda, a new mission to parallel the military mission now under way halfway around the world. The drive to achieve democracy in Iraq will be – and must be – accompanied by an initiative to restore democracy in Louisiana.

This new mission will require much of the same expenditure of capital, material, manpower and energy as the war we’re fighting in Iraq. And like with the Iraq war, the stakes couldn’t be higher: the integrity of the country and its ability to function. Whether he wants to or not, George Bush is compelled to open a new front in the war on terrorism, a domestic front, a tweak of a global mission whose necessity on these shores right now isn’t offset at all by the terrorism’s climatological origins.

Think about it: Katrina ushered into America vast and impersonal death; untold billions of dollars in insured and uninsured property losses; billions in revenue from the Gulf Coast port infrastructure, now badly compromised; billions in oil revenue from the ten refineries that owned and managed rigs offshore until the hurricane; certainly tens of millions of dollars from vanished casino, gaming and leisure revenue from two of the three affected states; the unfathomable price of an environmental nightmare of human and chemical toxins, a "toxic gumbo" (thank you Aaron Neville) that will require billions of dollars to clean up; and a deep and uneradicated sense of confusion and dread among the region’s people.

Was the effect of Sept. 11 any less deeply felt as a defining American experience? Is the devastation of that storm any less powerful than that in an act of human terrorism? Since there's no difference between the depth of the two tragedies, the current situation calls for at least the same intensity of response for this domestic tragedy as that which the nation took to fighting a foreign war -- a war that didn’t have to be fought in the first place.

But the intensity of the response to Katrina from this administration is up for debate, and a very uncertain thing. The same intensity of response to the terrors of Hurricane Katrina as our response to the tinpot tyranny of Saddam Hussein would mean having to repurpose billions and billions of dollars from an international purpose to a domestic one. That purpose would be fighting the effects of Katrina -- effects no less catastrophic, to the Gulf Coast, than the effects of Sept. 11, 2001, four years ago today, were to the City of New York and, by logical extension, the United States of America.

By choice or by demand, this will be George Bush’s new gulf war, fought not in the Persian Gulf but in the Gulf of Mexico. The shock and awe for this conflict will come from nature, the original superpower. And there won’t be any MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banners flying for many long months to come.
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