I was watching CSpan. President Bush came out in a blue shirt, no tie, an open collar. He stood against the bottom lit backdrop of the St. Louis Cathedral and spoke for thirty minutes of the hurricane that ravaged the Gulf and the Federal response to it. Acts of courage on the local level but government failures across the board. A "faith in God that no storm can take away."
It was a relatively short speech, considering how much time he had to prepare, but it was filled with important information on what's in store for the region. A massive federal effort to rebuild the coast, starting with $60 Billion but there is already talk of the cost reaching $200 Billion. Where the money will come from was one of the most important things left unsaid. The government is running on a deficit. At some point those bills have to be paid. Last week Tom DeLay defended further cuts to the estate tax, a tax that only effects the absurdly rich. There's $24 Billion in "pork" in the recently approved federal highway bill, pet projects like a $233 million bridge connecting an island with 50 residents in Alaska.
He also mentioned wanting to get all the facts on the government response but he didn't mention an independent commission. The current commission is dominated by Republicans and unlikely to yield any useful information.
I just got back from the Gulf where I was covering the disaster for Salon.com. I beat the president there by a day. I was waiting for George Bush to make some sense of what I had seen, an empty and dangerous city, a coastline laid to waist, gas lines for miles down the highway south of Jackson.
"Four years after the frightening experience of September 11th, Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency. When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I as president am responsible for the problem, and for the solution."
It was true that he was responsible, but it wasn't an apology. To say as president he is responsible for the problem makes him sound heroic, that he would shoulder such a burden. It's like he's taking responsibility for a fire because he owns the building, not because he lit the match. The truth is he's responsible not just because he's president. He's responsible because he put incompetent political appointees with no experience in charge of important federal agencies, like FEMA. He's responsible because he slashed funding for rebuilding the levees. He's responsible because he doesn't follow the news and his aides were afraid to tell him how bad the situation actually was. And he's responsible for the lines of information that lead into the oval office. Information that has been willfully wrong for five years now. He sits on top of a giant, inefficient, and corrupt white house and he's responsible for all of it.
But that wasn't the worst part of the speech and even the low level of responsibility the president is accepting is still a welcome departure. What was so much worse, and what left his apology and everything else so meaningless, was his insistence on tying everything to the previous lies of his administration.
"In a time of terror threats and weapons of mass destruction, the danger to our citizens reaches much wider than a fault line or a flood plain."
This was the line that jerked me from my seat. Should the president be allowed to say weapons of mass destruction? The "weapons of mass destruction" are what led us to Iraq, a place where there turned out to be no weapons of mass destruction. That cost us $200 Billion and counting, thousands of American lives, an enormous number of Iraqi lives. Iraq, which gets worse every day, and for which Bush has never taken anything resembling responsibility. Iraq where Bush seems to have done the impossible - made things worse than they were under Saddam Hussein.
He finished his speech with "the sound of children playing" in Biloxi and Gulfport, two Gulf towns in Mississippi, their casinos flicked from the ocean like bugs at a picnic table. And New Orleans "second line" the triumph of "spirit over death."
By then it was 6:30 on the west coast. On CSpan the president was followed by Dennis Hastert and Tom DeLay trumpeting the Republican commission that will be doing the inquiry into what went wrong in the early days of the disaster, assuring whoever was watching that the commission would be honest and fair. There would be no questions for the president, the press had not been invited to his speech in the evacuated city where he once again invaded our country with weapons that didn't exist, pledging money he doesn't have, linking tragedy to events he bears responsibility for but fails to understand.