President George W. Bush is well-known for never having admitted any lapse
of judgment or failure during the four and a half years of his
administration. In a marked turn, on Sept. 13 Bush said that "to the extent
the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take
To be responsible is to be "answerable or accountable, as for something
within one's power, control or management." Thus, Bush let us know that he
is answerable and accountable for not personally ensuring that the
appropriate federal agencies were effectively coordinating their activities
with state and local officials. Obviously, in the days immediately
following the awesome power of Katrina's Category 4 to 5 winds and the
breaching of the levees in New Orleans, such coordination, control and
management was critically important to save lives and to relieve suffering.
Meantime, with the political winds blowing in Katrina's aftermath, Bush's
poll numbers continued to precipitously decline. On Sept. 18, Tim Russert
publicized poll results on NBC's "Meet the Press" that placed Bush's
overall approval rating at 40 percent, and Bush's handling of Katrina at 38
percent. These numbers are no doubt at least partly reflective of
widespread public outrage over televised images of thousands of people,
mostly poor and mostly black, crammed into the Superdome and New Orleans
Convention Center. Elderly people in wheelchairs were literally dying of
thirst, and dead bodies were left unattended. People were forced to survive
for days without adequate water and food in the sweltering heat of New
Anyone who saw the televised events had to feel a sense of outrage mixed
with utter disbelief. Four days after the hurricane hit, a black man
cradled a 3-month-old infant in his arms at the New Orleans Convention
Center. He angrily demanded an answer to his question: How was his baby
supposed to survive without water or formula? A mother wept inconsolably
because her little boy was limp in her arms and could not seem to wake up.
A frail grandmother was slumped over in her wheelchair, without water to
quench her thirst.
The White House switchboard undoubtedly lit up with calls from people
across the United States demanding to know why it was possible to airlift
food and water to tsunami victims in Asia at the drop of a hat, but it was
impossible for the U.S. government to do the same for hurricane victims at
the Superdome and the convention center.
The situation was made all the more bizarre because television footage
showed the National Guard with weapons in the immediate vicinity of the
victims at the convention center. Their charge was to "secure the area."
Many people wondered why the National Guard trucked themselves and their
weapons into the ravaged area without also bringing trailers of water and
other supplies behind their vehicles. Why didn't they drive fully stocked
supply trucks into the area to meet the life and death needs of hurricane
Buses were brought into New Orleans to transport evacuees to places such as
Houston and other destinations. But the buses arrived empty. One had to
wonder, "Who were the geniuses who didn't think to fill the buses with food
and water to supply those hurricane victims who were not able to leave?"
Immediately after the debacle that literally turned the New Orleans
Convention Center into a macabre scene of anger, death and human feces, the
White House refused to call anyone to account, such as Director of Homeland
Security Michael Chertoff, or Mike Brown, then director of the Federal
Emergency Management Agency. Bush notably said, "Brownie, you're doing a
heck of a job."
Later, White House Spokesman Scott McClellan assumed the role of
administration automaton by repeatedly refusing to answer a reporter's
simple question about whether the president continued to have full
confidence in his FEMA director. McClellan droned on and on about his
refusal "to play the blame game." Since "blame" means "to place the
responsibility for a fault or error on a person," Bush evidently decided to
play the blame game with himself by his admission of responsibility.
In terms of political reality, the White House really had no choice but to
encourage the president to deliver a message of contrition. This was no
doubt seen as the only conceivable way to possibly overcome the widespread
perception that Bush was out of touch with, and even insensitive to, the
needs of the hurricane victims.
This perception of a president woefully ill-informed was fueled by a report
in Newsweek magazine ("How Bush Blew It," Sept. 19). On Thursday, Sept. 1,
four days after Katrina hit the Gulf, "White House staffers were watching
the evening news and thought the president needed to see the horrific
reports coming out of New Orleans." Dan Bartlett, Bush's legal counsel,
made a DVD of television coverage of the events happening on the ground "so
Bush could see them in their entirety as he flew down to the Gulf Coast the
next morning on Air Force One." Evidently, he did.
The president's address at Jackson Square in New Orleans was apparently an
effort to convert an image of ineptitude into an image of "take charge"
leadership. Bush announced a bold "Gulf Opportunity Zone" initiative to
rebuild the hard-hit region, particularly the Mardi Gras city. Karl Rove,
White House deputy chief of staff and Bush's chief political adviser, has
been placed at the helm of the estimated $200 billion project. With Rove in
control, it seems highly likely that the entire rebuilding project will end
up being politicized.
While massive lighting was provided to illuminate the area for the
president's address, the city was once again plunged back into darkness
when Bush finished speaking and left. Meanwhile, 40 percent of the city
remained a fetid marsh, with corpses, garbage, mold and muck.
And let's not forget that the icon behind Bush during his national address
was a statue of President Andrew Jackson on horseback. It was Jackson, an
avowed Indian hater, who was behind the infamous Indian removal policy of
the 1830s that drove almost all Indian nations away from their ancestral
lands in the east, and pushed them west of the Mississippi River. This
removal of indigenous peoples was followed by the removal of the indigenous
land uses, resulting in the destruction of the marshes and wetlands that
are essential to effectively protect the shore from hurricanes, and
essential to the safety and survival of humans and other animals that live
in the region.
One can only hope that the debacle of federal inaction in New Orleans was
not part of a removal policy being waged against the poverty-stricken
blacks in the poorest sections of New Orleans. Such cynicism was not
diminished when The Wall Street Journal reported that Rep. Richard Baker,
R-La., was overheard saying: "We finally cleaned up public housing in New
Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did." Some cynical minds suspect that a
major land grab may be on the horizon for the wealthy elite and major
corporations that want New Orleans to become a Las Vegas-style, "Hollywood
South" sans the poor.
Steven Newcomb is Indigenous Law Research Coordinator at Kumeyaay Community
College, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and a
columnist for Indian Country Today.