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     Volume 4 Issue 62 | September 9, 2005 |

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In Focus

Bush at bay

Todd Gitlin

Apres le déluge, quoi? The gales that blew across the Gulf of Mexico last week also engulfed President George W Bush as he strained to cope with catastrophe - the hurricane and subsequent inundation and social breakdown that vast numbers of Americans understood as not only natural but political.

August was already Bush's cruellest month. This President eagerly seizes his annual chance to evacuate the discomfiting city of Washington for the west Texas ranch where, his spokesman recently admitted, he grazes 'four or five cattle'. But exigencies have a way of streaming into the bubble.

On 6 August 2001, the CIA told Bush: 'Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.' On 6 August 2005, Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a Californian soldier killed in Iraq, camped out near his west Texas ranch demanding to meet him to ask why her son had died. Sheehan filled the news vacuum and became, for a while, Everywoman, while Bush was caught off-balance, especially as constitutional talks in Iraq proved unimpressive. The President sounded hapless when he answered a reporter's question as to why he could find time for his bicycle but not Sheehan.

'I think it's important for me to be thoughtful and sensitive to those who have got something to say. But I think it's also important for me to go on with my life, to keep a balanced life ... and part of my being is to be outside exercising. So I'm mindful of what goes on around me. On the other hand, I'm also mindful that I've got a life to live and will do so.'

Still, Bush found it advisable to leave Texas briefly on sorties to other reliable states - Utah and Idaho - in search of friendly faces to rally. In Salt Lake City, which gave him 60 per cent of its votes last November, 2,000 protested at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention where Bush said: 'We're not yet safe. Terrorists in foreign lands still hope to attack our country.' Such pieties are losing the power to sway those who are losing faith in faith-based rule.

Bush has been scrambling to establish that he is still the can-do guy, getting on top of and solving problems, but the dikes protecting his popularity have broken. His support has never been lower; the percentages approving his performance in last week's polls sit at 41 per cent (CBS), 45 per cent (Gallup and ABC News/Washington Post). Fifty-two per cent supported Sheehan's protest while 42 per cent opposed it. An evening of national vigils turned out tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands at more than 1,600 locations. Knocks at Sheehan, whose lips are indeed loose - she has called Bush a 'terrorist' - have not helped him restore martial optimism.

Still, Bush's party and inner circle remain adamantly loyal. Republican Senators returning to Washington after their August recess, looking ahead to the mid-term elections of 2006, may mutter backstage about what they fear is a dead-ended war, but only one so far, Vietnam veteran Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, says aloud what others quail to intimate: 'stay the course' is not a policy.

All this has been bad enough for Bush. Then the levees broke. A predictable, and oft-predicted, hurricane blew into the Gulf coast. As the waters mounted, refugees waved desperately from the rooftops and Bush uttered feel-good phrases. By Wednesday, major newspapers such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and Chicago Tribune were getting tough on administration cutbacks that had left the city naked. Business Week wrote: 'Engineers have known for years that New Orleans's levees couldn't withstand anything above a category 3 hurricane ... and just this summer, the proposed funding for the New Orleans Army Corps of Engineers' district was cut by $71 million for fiscal 2006' In a preemptive rhetorical strike, Bush's press secretary, Scott McLellan, said on Thursday: 'This is not a time for finger-pointing or playing politics.'

Most visible Democrats have gone quiet. They're fighting to get relief and repair funds from the Republicans, who control the entire US government and are poised to accuse anyone who demonstrates a memory valid for more than 15 minutes of playing politics with tragedy. But the Congressional Black Caucus was angry; it is not lost on them, or on any casual TV viewer, that New Orleans's desperate ones, who couldn't drive out of town, are largely African-American in what is one of the poorest of American cities, however good the times that used to roll in the French quarter.

Local officials are furious. 'We knew it [a disastrous flood] was inevitable,' said a former Louisiana Secretary of Environmental Quality on MSNBC. Asked if a breach of the levees could have been anticipated, and whether it had been possible to plan for it, she said: 'Look, this is what the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been doing for years and years and years.'

In the war of interpretation that has just begun, the administration is trying to coat itself with Teflon. They have started to snipe back at Democratic city and state officials - and looters and plain sluggards. You can hear the sound of social Darwinist cards being played. Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security, said: 'The critical thing was to get people out of [New Orleans] before the disaster. Some people chose not to obey that order. That was a mistake on their part.'

The troops were late getting to the disaster site and restoring order. Sounds familiar? The looters are eerily reminiscent of Baghdad's in 2003, when the Bush administration was famously unready for the 'stuff' that, as Donald Rumsfeld said, 'happens'. Despite evident differences, there is also eerie parallel in the administration's carelessness and cluelessness, a pattern of denial, neglect and abdication of responsibility. This functional indifference obliterates facts with aplomb. Bush told ABC's Diane Sawyer on Thursday: 'I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.'

Sawyer didn't dispute Bush's claim. But many journalists are doing so and with good reason. In fact, the catastrophe on the Gulf coast may be the most widely predicted catastrophe in American history, as American media are now clambering all over themselves to note.

Ordinarily docile reporters are rejuvenated. One, NBC's Andrea Mitchell, said on Friday: 'We're already hearing criticisms and it's not just partisan criticism' about 'decades of neglect'. (She was careful to add that the neglect could not simply be blamed on the Bush administration.) Newsweek's reliable weathervane of conventional wisdom, Howard Fineman, said that a lot of 'pent-up criticism' is roaring out because, on the disaster, reporters are not so cowed as they are on the subject of terrorists.

Bush was hoping for a mellow September. The face of his administration was supposed to be his Supreme Court nominee, genial conservative John Roberts, coasting through Senate hearings. The Iraq constitution was supposed to be on track. Although Bush does not seem to take his reverses personally - a Texas reporter told me that she found him funny and relaxed the other day at his ranch, cracking jokes about TV reporters - he's lost control.

Bush has much more to worry about than Katrina's aftermath. Iraq is not brimming with good news, however much conservatives complain that the good is kept off the nation's screens. (Laura Bush complained about ugly news from the Gulf coast.) Meanwhile, federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has another month to issue indictments in the Robert Novak/Valerie Plame/Karl Rove leak case. Prosecutors are working away at House Republican tsar Tom DeLay's buddy, the lobbyist-bagman Jack Abramoff, and there may well be other powerful heads poised to fall around him.

And Bush will be left to explain why thousands of Louisiana National Guardsmen were not available to help feed, protect and evacuate the citizens of New Orleans because they were in ... Iraq.

· Todd Gitlin is professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of the forthcoming book, The Intellectuals and the Flag (Columbia University Press)

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