Thursday, September 01, 2005

Hurricane Katrina: Bush will rise to the occasion

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It's hard to fully appreciate the human cost of this awful tragedy. Almost a million people are stuck in soaring temperatures, struggling with the reality of what they've lost and the uncertainty of the future. As if things couldn't get any worse it seems that they are now threatened with the prospect of criminal violence and shootings from unscrupulous looters. It's in times of a national crisis like this that people look towards their political leaders for strength and inspiration.

Already criticisms have been directed at the Administration...

Despite repeated warnings that a catastrophic hurricane could hit Louisiana, the Administration and Congress denied full funding for hurricane preparation and flood control. Recently released figures show that $27 million was requested by the US Army Corps of Engineers to pay for hurricane protection projects around Lake Pontchartrain, which was countered by the Administration with a miserly offer of $3.9 million. Congress eventually provided $5.7 million. Michael Parker, a former Republican Mississippi congressman who headed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, from October 2001 to March 2002, has said of the funding shortfalls, "I'm not saying (New Orleans) wouldn't still be flooded... but I do feel that if it had been totally funded, there would be less flooding than you have."

In addition to the issues of underfunding there are broader implications for the manner in which the Administration has tackled Climate change. I was in Los Angeles earlier this year when California was subjected to record levels of sustained rainfall. Climate change is no longer just a scientific debate, or an abstract prospect for our children's children in the distant future. It is a manifest reality, now, that we can witness with our own eyes. And while there is no scientific proof that hurricane frequency is linked to global warming, environmental issues are clearly going to be the primary consideration as people search for a tangible explanation to such a terrible natural disaster.

But, there is a more pertinent criticism of the President being prominently expressed... his ability to stand up and give hope to those in need, leading the nation during such a tumultuous time of crisis and chaos.

Many people do not recall that in the immediate aftermath of September 11th similar questions were being asked of George Bush. Former Republican Congressman and TV Host, Joe Scarborough, has famously stated that he seriously questioned whether the President was up to such a momentous task directly after the WTC attacks. At Bush's initial press conference he struggled to hold back tears that sent a message of vulnerability when people were looking to be strengthened by his resolve. A televised phone call with NY Governor Pataki, and Mayor Giulliani depicted the President dumbfounded and incoherent as Giulliani repeatedly seemed to be covering for the Commander in Chief's shortcomings.

But, while I passionately disagree with so much of what this Administration stands for... its perpetuation of a failed economic theory, and its reckless approach to international affairs and the importance of multilateralism... that doesn't deprive me of recognizing George Bush's strengths, and hoping for them in abundance at a time when so many require their abundant display. Strengths that I believe will be there for all to see tomorrow when the President tours the damaged Gulf Coast region, traveling through some of the hardest hit areas by helicopter and then spending time with people at less hazardous locations on the ground.

Almost a million Americans are stranded without electricity... their lives shattered in the wake of this terrible disaster. Thousands, according to Senator Landrieu, might be dead. Those who are already sharpening their knives, convinced that the hurricane and floods will exacerbate the President's recent political demise should tread very carefully indeed. While there remains immense fear and insecurity, frequently descending into outbreaks of anger and resentment... it doesn't change the fact that there is a vacuum of leadership that we all need to be addressed.

George Bush, whether you love him or hate him is a very normal, sincere, emotionally accessible man, capable, on the most basic level of immeasurable compassion and empathy. He remains the man who felt and articulated people's feelings so effectively at Ground Zero with that bull horn in his hands. He remains the man that gave one of the most impressive addresses I have ever seen to the United Nations in the lead up to the Iraq War, when so many expected him to fall on his face. He remains the man that out pointed Al Gore in three successive Presidential Debates, and came back against John Kerry effectively after a disastrous first debate. Those who seek to capitalize on Hurricane Katrina for political ends are simply setting themselves up for the most consistent truism of Bush's political career: When expectations are at their lowest, George Bush often blows people's expectations away with the earnestness of his humanity and the extent of his competence. When it really matters, as a political leader, very rarely does he fail to rise to the occasion. Hence, why so many people of my political persuasion find him to be such a nightmare to wrap their heads around. As much as I have, very strongly, disagreed with his policies on this blog, and will continue to do so during the long journey to 2008, I hope that I have always been, and will remain, honestly respectful of his strengths as a politician.

As bad as Bush's approval ratings are (and they are very bad indeed) those who are precipitously making accusations should be wary of committing the same mistakes of Bush's past adversaries. They should also recognize that perhaps now is not the time to employ such a rigorous level of scrutiny in an attempt to apportion blame. The time for that will soon be here... mistakes will be highlighted, and those responsible should be held accountable. But, right now people are in serious trouble, and it looks like they're going to remain that way for quite a period of time. Somehow, at least in the short term, we need to pull together and hope that the President can convey a sense of national unity, and compassion, that will leave those who are stranded and hopeless with the indisputable sense that they are not alone... That everybody, regardless of our political affiliation and our disagreements with the President, are in this together for the long haul.

My best wishes go out to anyone who remains involved in this terrible tragedy.

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