Hurricane Katrina "was not a normal hurricane and the normal disaster relief system was not equal to it," President Bush said last night. But after a slow start, the President has proven that he is more than equal to the political tempest that landed ashore with Katrina.
Last week in this space I called on the President to fire FEMA head Michael Brown and give a speech with plenty of specifics about the state of the rescue operation and how problems are being fixed. Now Brown is gone, and Bush has given a speech that did everything it needed to and more. Even with the handicap of having no live audience with which to interact, Bush gave one of the four or five most effective speeches of his presidency last night.
It was a speech crafted to reassure listeners that good things are happening despite the hardship, from the anecdotes of heroism and courage at the beginning to the ending metaphor of a jazz funeral, where the band breaks out of a dirge and "into a joyful 'second line' symbolizing the triumph of the spirit over death." Bush thus placed himself in sharp relief against the negative and unpleasant post-Katrina political atmosphere.
The speech had some nice moments of rhetorical jujitsu, where Bush took the content of criticisms hurled at him in the wake of the hurricane and used them to his advantage. The critics say the President is ultimately responsible for failures; Bush not only agrees, he deftly transmutes that responsibility into credit for responsive action:
When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I, as President, am responsible for the problem, and for the solution. So I have ordered every Cabinet secretary to participate in a comprehensive review of the government response to the hurricane. This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina. We are going to review every action and make necessary changes, so that we are better prepared for any challenge of nature, or act of evil men, that could threaten our people.
The critics play the race card in a nasty way; Bush plays it right back at them in a positive way, grabbing the high ground:
When communities are rebuilt, they must be even better and stronger than before the storm. Within the Gulf region are some of the most beautiful and historic places in America. As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. And that poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality.
When the streets are rebuilt, there should be many new businesses, including minority-owned businesses, along those streets. When the houses are rebuilt, more families should own, not rent, those houses. When the regional economy revives, local people should be prepared for the jobs being created. Americans want the Gulf Coast not just to survive, but to thrive, not just to cope, but to overcome. We want evacuees to come home for the best of reasons, because they have a real chance at a better life in a place they love.
Bush went on to make several somewhat gimmicky proposals: an entrepreneur-friendly "Gulf Opportunity Zone," "Worker Recovery Accounts" of up to $5,000 that evacuees can use for job training and education or child care, and an Urban Homestead Act to give federal land away to low-income individuals who can build homes with either a loan or charity. What the President is doing is inflecting Clinton-style microinitiatives with an Ownership Society flavor. Whether or not that's good policy, it's almost certainly good politics.
After the speech ended, ABC provided a scene of wonderful high comedy, with reporter Dean Reynolds interviewing evacuees outside the Astrodome and repeatedly getting the "wrong" answers delivered in the almost musical accent of black New Orleans. Do you think the President was sincere? "Yes." Did you hear anything you didn't believe? "No, I didn't." One woman not only declined to criticize the President, she forcefully argued that state and local authorities deserve the lion's share of the blame for not acting long before the feds could be expected to arrive, invoking the famous unused buses.
Poor Reynolds, caught in a white liberal nightmare where the black people refuse to follow the script. But it's no surprise that Bush won the evacuees over. It was, as one woman put it, "a well fine speech."
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