At just this hour a year ago, Katrina -- after its long buildup across the Gulf -- finally made landfall, and the slow death of New Orleans as we have known it began. I remember watching with T. that morning, glued to the TV screen, relief that New Orleans “dodged a bullet” turning to horror as an entire city was slowly flushed down the toilet by the rising waters. Even then, we had no idea of the true scope of the devastation.
We could not have imagined that morning that our government would just ignore a great American city in dire extremity; that on the third day of the tragedy, when the iconic photograph of our flyover president was taken, 3,000 people would be stranded at the convention center without food or water; that the next day Bush would say, "I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees;" that the day after that, Bush would say at his notorious photo-op with his FEMA director, "Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job;" and that the Louisiana Superdome would not be fully evacuated until the day after that. (For an even more comprehensive -- and damning -- chronology, see KATRINA TIMELINE at Think Progress.)
Last night, we watched Brian Williams and his anniversary coverage on NBC. I’m furious that all the suffering was allowed to happen through a combination of malign neglect, cronyism, ideological blinders -- and sheer, mind-numbing incompetence. My gut impulse is to rave and rant, but what good would that do?
Instead, let’s return for a moment to that flyover picture by Manny Garcia. That image, as well as different variants by the other photographers on the flight, were analyzed in this post by Michael Shaw last September at his invaluable BAG News Notes blog, where he combines a clinical psychologist’s insights with close photographic analysis of the images we receive through the media. I think the post and the related comments are worth another look now, for the light they throw on the posturing that took the place of action for our nation’s leadership at the time.
Finally, I cannot emphasized enough how absolutely staged these images are.One thing the discussion makes clear is that Bush got a really good view outside his window of the destruction down below. He can’t say he didn’t know. And that makes the broken promises detailed by Paul Krugman yesterday all the more appalling. (Sorry, Times Select link -- registration required.)
Of course, that might seem obvious upon making the statement -- especially if you share my politics. Because of the assuming nature of a photo, however (with its suggestion of reality and its emotional draw), it is always going to pull for acceptance of the spin.
On the other hand, it is much harder to take the President's posturing at face value when you can see evidence of the stage and the actor, one pose after another. At that point, you can see that this is simply a photo shoot, and the President, rather than being somebody at this critical moment, is trying to look like someone instead.
Apologists for the administration will doubtless claim that blame for the lack of progress rests not with Mr. Bush, but with the inherent inefficiency of government bureaucracies. That’s the great thing about being an antigovernment conservative: even when you fail at the task of governing, you can claim vindication for your ideology.What are the broken promises Krugman is talking about? Well, for openers, there’s this -- “although Congress allocated $17 billion to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for Katrina relief, primarily to provide cash assistance to homeowners, as of last week the department had spent only $100 million.”
But bureaucracies don’t have to be this inefficient. The failure to get moving on reconstruction reflects lack of leadership at the top.
Mr. Bush could have moved quickly to turn his promises of reconstruction into reality. But he didn’t. As months dragged by with little sign of White House action, all urgency about developing a plan for reconstruction ebbed away.
For many Americans, although we're paying lip service to the anniversary now, Katrina is already long gone. It seems to be a national habit to forget the past and move on. History may not let us off that easily, however. "What's past is prologue," wrote Shakespeare, a man who knew a thing or two about callous, uncaring leaders. It's frightening that this guy has more than two years left in office, two more years to fly from here to there, posturing to his heart's content, while the country goes to hell.