Friday, September 09, 2005

The 'blame game,' Mr. President?


President Bush is revving the gears of his spin machine. He and his staff are whining that Democrats are playing the "blame game" rather than showing unswerving support in the face of an unnerving national disaster.

Poor George. He seems to have forgotten -- and so, perhaps, have many of us -- the still uncounted dead from Hurricane Katrina who may number in the thousands (the Federal Emergency Management Agency has ordered 25,000 body bags.) I wonder how many died while the president vacationed and his federal managers fumbled? I wonder how many drowned, trapped in wheelchairs and attics or clinging to roofs and trees, in the hours and then days that it took a full-scale federal rescue effort to take shape? I wonder why we still can't get it right for survivors, some of whom collapsed in the heat Thursday waiting for debit cards FEMA promised and then didn't deliver?

And the president is upset that his critics aren't holding their tongues? No one is calling for a multi-count indictment for involuntary manslaughter, Mr. President. They just expect you, our self-proclaimed war president, to be a leader, not a buck-passer.

Or at least some do. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll this week found that 42 percent of Amercicans in this country believe the president did a bad or terrible job of responding to the hurricane. I can only wonder what's up with the other 58 percent.

This is a man whose modus operandi for five years has been to reward the rich and dismantle support systems for everyone else. He's the man who appointed the failed head of the International Arabian Horse Association to head the agency most vital to national recovery from a catastrophe. And after that man, Michael Brown, told the press he had no clue that perhaps 20,000 people were trapped at the New Orleans Convention Center three days after the storm, an assertion that defies comprehension or credibility, President Bush flew to the decimated Gulf to tell him, "Brownie, you're doin' a heck of a job."

Blame game?

Then there was the performance of the president himself. As Hurricane Katrina zeroed in on New Orleans, he stayed on vacation in Crawford, Texas. When it crashed ashore with 20-foot- plus storm surges, flattening whole communities, he headed to the West Coast to drum up more support for his disastrous war in Iraq. When the levees broke and the water began to rise in New Orleans, he gave a speech -- comparing himself to a great Democratic president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, during World War II. When, two days after the storm's devastation he finally decided he should go back to Washington, he looked down from the heights of Air Force One rather than stopping on the ground. And when it was time to duck and cover, he began with the statement that no one expected New Orleans' levees to break, a bald-faced lie.

That was the run-up to the President's Friday tour of the damage and his ignorant, ill-timed and outrageous comment praising Michael Brown. And since then? Has the president made amends by opening his home in Crawford to a family in need of shelter? Has this compassionate conservative set an example by writing a sizable relief check on national TV? Has he spent a single day feeding the sick, the homeless, the numb as they try to make sense of shattered lives? No, no, and no.

But he did trot out his press secretary to spin the "blame game" defense. White House spokesman Scott McClellan used "blame game" 15 times in the course of two press conferences, according to news reports. And while he was shaking his finger at critics, mom, former First Lady Barbara Bush, seemed to be chiding the survivors themselves.This Monday at Houston's Astrodome, she announced, according to USA Today, that some evacuees there "were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."

Oh really.

The newspaper kindly dismissed the comment as an example of a "Yankee reserve" that sometimes restrained the president as well. But it sounded a lot more like bigotry to me, or at least ignorance, which some might consider the same thing.

In the end, of course, it is the president's own behavior that counts. For a guy who spends a lot of time swaggering and sneering, he has yet to learn a president's job is to lead. Leadership means getting in front of a situation, not figuring out how to distract people from the damage once it's done.

And so, Mr. President, I'd say this: If anyone is playing games, it's you. But the public is catching on. This time, as you once again wrap yourself in an oversized American flag, more of us see that from behind it you are spitting at the people it represents.


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