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Where Was George?

This column was written by Michael Tomasky.

The first reports on levee breaks in New Orleans starting moving across the wire services just after dawn on Tuesday, August 30. Radio and television were reporting the same: "The levees in New Orleans have been breached," said National Public Radio's Melissa Block that same morning. The potential for catastrophe was clear enough, early on Tuesday morning, that NPR reporter David Kestenbaum asked a Louisiana State University expert, "Think we're ever going to have to give up on New Orleans?"

By early afternoon Eastern time, the scope of the tragedy was evident, with images of New Orleans under water dominating every cable channel.

I don't know about you, but if I were president, or if I were advising one, I'd have said to my colleagues: "We stop everything we're doing right now. We go back to Washington, at the very least; ideally, we head down to the area -- if not New Orleans, then certainly to Baton Rouge, to meet with the governor and greet some evacuees. One of the country's half-dozen greatest cities is dying."

Instead, Bush was in sunny San Diego, having just left sunny El Mirage, Arizona. In El Mirage, he gave a speech to group of senior citizens, trying to persuade them to sign up for his prescription-drug benefit -- which was passed in 2003, as you'll recall, only after House Republican leaders kept the floor open for three extra hours to twist the arms of enough GOP members to switch their votes, and which, speaking of mirages, covers only the first $2,250 of a person's drug costs, after which they pay 100 percent of the next $2,850 out of their own pocket.

The president then took time to help his now-close buddy Sen. John McCain celebrate his 69th birthday, sharing a piece of birthday cake on the Tarmac. They posed for happy pictures as Katrina was smashing into the Gulf Coast with a force never before seen from a hurricane in the nation's history.

In San Diego -- after the levees were breached -- Bush stayed to schedule, delivering yet one more tired propaganda speech about Iraq. But this time, he had the temerity to compare the Iraq War to World War II, as he was celebrating the 60th anniversary of America's victory over Japan (which surrendered not on August 30 but on August 15; but with this president, who's counting?).

"As we mark this anniversary, we are again a nation at war," Bush told his Naval-base crowd, as if a war of choice peddled to the American public on trumped-up and outright false allegations were the same thing morally as a war in which America was attacked and then obligated to lead the fight against three powerful nations (OK, Italy; two and two-thirds), which it undertook in concert with its major allies.

And, yes, he had the nerve to meld Pearl Harbor and September 11, which are similar in some obvious respects, except in the sense Bush means -- that is, after Pearl Harbor, we responded by making war against the country that actually launched the attack on us. Imagine that!

By the time Bush finished that speech, one of America's greatest urban treasures, one of the unique cities of the world, was mostly submerged. And towns and small cities in Mississippi were leveled, just gone. And yet the president steered clear of either Washington or the affected area for yet one more night, Tuesday night.

Finally, he still spent part of the next morning, Wednesday, at the Crawford ranch before Air Force One finally lifted off and took his to survey the damage -- from the air.

On one level, all this is "just" symbolism. But real leaders understand symbolism. They give speeches that are appropriate to the moment, dramatically unlike Bush's ghastly performance on the White House lawn yesterday. He spoke as if it were September 13, 2001; as if the nation were still desperate to be united behind its leadership; as if saving New Orleans were simply a matter of resolve and guts; as if the catastrophe that is the war had never happened, and he still had credibility in the eyes of a majority of Americans; as if Mother Nature, abetted by the global warming that he denies, were another group of evildoers who could be brought to heel with tough words and a return volley of violence.

And on top of all this symbolism, there is substance, laid out in stunning detail by Sidney Blumenthal on Salon on August 29. "In 2004," Blumenthal wrote, "the Bush administration cut funding requested by the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for holding back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain by more than 80 percent." That was one of about eight amazing pieces of information. It will be fascinating to monitor how aggressively the major media follow this story over the coming days.

Like everyone else, I hope now that the administration plays furious catch-up and does everything it can to help the recovery and eventual rebuilding. But the first days of a crisis are a test. Bush has already failed it. Current and future New Orleanians will ask, as Ted Kennedy famously did of his father in 1988: Where was George?
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved

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