A newly leaked video from Aug. 28 shows President Bush sitting passively as he is briefed on the killer storm heading directly for the Gulf Coast. Senior officials voice dire predictions including the distinct possibility of severe flooding in New Orleans.
He asks no questions. And when he spoke it was to offer what turned out be unfounded assurances:
"I want to assure the folks at the state level that we are fully prepared to not only help you during the storm, but we will move in whatever assets and resources we have at our disposal after the storm to help you deal with the loss of property, and we pray for no loss of life, of course."But the fraudulence of Bush's words, of course, was caught on tape as well, in the now-familiar but still searing images of thousands of New Orleans residents stranded for days on rooftops or hellish disaster shelters. Not to mention those who died waiting for help that never came.
The tape, obtained by the Associated Press, clearly contradicts what Bush said three days later to ABC's Diane Sawyer , who was pressing him to explain the slow pace of rescue efforts.
Sawyer: "Mr. President, this morning, as we speak . . . there are people with signs saying 'Help, come get me'. People still in the attic, waving. Nurses are phoning in saying the situation in hospitals is getting ever more dire and the nurses are getting sick because of no clean water. Some of the things they asked our correspondents to ask you is: They expected -- they say to us -- that the day after this hurricane that there would be a massive and visible armada of federal support. There would be boats coming in. There would be food. There would be water. It would be there within hours. They wondered: What's taking so long?"
Bush's response, in part: "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees. They did anticipate a serious storm. But these levees got breached. And as a result, much of New Orleans is flooded. And now we are having to deal with it and will."
Bush told reporters two weeks later that he had been misunderstood.
During a visit to New Orleans, he said: "[W]hat I was referring to is this. When that storm came by, a lot of people said we dodged a bullet. When that storm came through at first, people said, whew. There was a sense of relaxation, and that's what I was referring to. And I, myself, thought we had dodged a bullet. You know why? Because I was listening to people, probably over the airways, say, the bullet has been dodged. And that was what I was referring to."Of course, there were plans in case the levee had been breached. There was a sense of relaxation in the moment, a critical moment. And thank you for giving me a chance to clarify that."
Nevertheless, Bush's quote about not anticipating the breach has become a symbol of his lackluster response to the hurricane.
Even a report from House Republicans recently found that "earlier presidential involvement could have speeded the response" because he alone could have cut through all bureaucratic resistance.
Apparently as a rejoinder to the new video, the White House yesterday suddenly sent around a transcript that it previously said didn't exist, from a conference call on the following day. It includes a second-hand account of Bush's activities from Michael Brown, the Bush-appointed FEMA director who later resigned in disgrace, describing the president as engaged, watching TV and asking questions.
White House spokesman Trent Duffy said this yesterday: "I hope people don't draw conclusions from the president getting a single briefing. He received multiple briefings from multiple officials, and he was completely engaged at all times."
But where, then, is the first-hand evidence of this engagement?
Where is the evidence of Bush's leadership?
The government's response to Hurricane Katrina was (and continues to be) a massive failure.
The new videotape offers a visceral illustration of how some, if not a lot of the blame, lay in a leader who saw his job as expressing unjustified confidence and making empty promises, rather than taking action to make sure his people were safe.
Hurricane Katrina was the second great challenge of Bush's presidency.
Which inevitably makes me think of how Bush responded, in a moment also "caught on tape," to his first. After finding out that the nation was under attack on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush remained frozen in his seat in a Florida classroom for seven minutes.
The grainy video from that classroom, a hallmark of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," can be found at The Memory Hole: http://www.thememoryhole.org/911/bush-911.htm
A staff report from the 9/11 commission described that morning:"The President was seated in a classroom of second graders when, at approximately 9:05, Andrew Card whispered to him: 'A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.' The President told us his instinct was to project calm, not to have the country see an excited reaction at a moment of crisis."But even after he left the classroom, he didn't call the Pentagon. He didn't ask if there were other aircraft hijacked or missing. Instead, he and his staff worked on a statement to the press.Faced with challenges like these -- an attack on our nation or a natural disaster bearing down on our shores -- we can reasonably expect that our presidents will stand up, demand answers and options, and lead.
If the White House insists that Bush did that with Hurricane Katrina, it is incumbent upon them to back up that claim up with evidence. Otherwise, the image of him mouthing platitudes threatens to become defining of his presidency.