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“The Undoing Of George W. Bush”: Even With Mass Communications, The Uninterrupted 29 Day Vacation Is Where It All Began To Go Wrong

This week marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which was one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history during the late summer of 2005. In addition to showing the determination and courage of the victims and first responders – etched deep into the nation’s consciousness – Katrina also illustrated the perils that presidents face when they fail to deal with such calamities in a timely and efficient way, as George W. Bush discovered a decade ago. Strange as it may seem at this time of instant communication and the 24-hour news cycle, Bush didn’t pay attention to the biggest news story of the moment because he was on vacation and allowed himself to get isolated from the country.

Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on the morning of Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, spread across 400 miles with sustained winds of up to 125 mph. A storm surge as high as 9 meters in some places rolled across levees and drainage canals and led to widespread flooding and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Damage was estimated at $100 billion. And, while there is no official death toll and numbers vary, more than 1,000 people died.

The National Weather Service had warned on August 28, the day before the storm made landfall on the Gulf Coast, that “most of the [Gulf Coast] area will be uninhabitable for weeks … perhaps longer.” New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered the city evacuated and he opened the Superdome as a shelter, but the thousands of people who sought refuge there found little or no food, water and medical care.

Americans across the country were shocked by the television images they saw in Katrina’s immediate aftermath. People stood on rooftops waving their arms and pleading for help as the flood waters inundated their communities. Desperate folks in the Superdome appeared in heartbreaking TV interviews begging for aid in their time of need. Making matters worse was that 67 percent of New Orleans was African American and 30 percent of the residents were poor, creating the impression that the government was insensitive and neglectful of minorities and the less fortunate.

While all this was going on, the president of the United States remained aloof from the disaster. Day after day, George W. Bush continued a long-planned vacation at his 1,600-acre Prairie Chapel Ranch in Crawford, Texas, and his staff didn’t want to burden him with detailed information about the situation on the Gulf Coast. When Katrina made landfall, Bush had been on holiday at his ranch for 27 days, according to a tabulation kept by CBS News.

As the hurricane grew into a catastrophe, and as the nation watched the TV coverage in horror, Bush’s aides decided they had to inform the president about it in stark terms. One of his aides put together a video showing scenes of hurricane-ravaged communities and showed it to the president. At this point, Bush decided he should cut his vacation short and return home two days early to preside over the federal response from Washington. He flew back to Washington on August 31, after 29 days at his ranch.

On the way back, he had Air Force One fly over part of the devastated area and he glimpsed the wreckage from the plane. White House officials allowed news photographers to take photos of a grim-faced Bush looking out an Air Force One window but the PR gambit backfired. Many Americans saw the photo, which was widely disseminated, as evidence that Bush was too distant from the misery below. In a 2010 interview with NBC, Bush conceded that allowing the photo to be taken was a “huge mistake” because it made him seem “detached and uncaring.”

Bush declined to visit the devastated area right away. White House aides said at the time that Bush didn’t want to cause disruptions in rescue and recovery efforts by diverting security and communications to himself. But Bush allies privately conceded that he could have quickly visited somewhere along the Gulf Coast with minimal disruption, perhaps a staging site, to show solidarity with victims of the hurricane and the first responders. His supporters said later that his slow reaction and the weak federal, state and local response to the hurricane undermined Bush’s reputation for being an effective crisis manager and a decisive leader. And his reputation never improved even though he later made repeated visits to the hurricane zone and steered billions of federal dollars into recovery programs.

“He never recovered from Katrina,” says a former Bush adviser and Republican strategist who wants to remain anonymous to avoid offending the Bush family. “The unfolding disaster with the Iraq war [a conflict which Bush ordered] didn’t help, but it’s clear that after Katrina he never got back the popularity that he had.” Referring to Bush’s decision to fly over the ravaged areas and allow photos to be taken of him peering out the window, the former adviser added: “He’s rued that decision ever since.”

In his book “Decision Points,” Bush wrote, “That photo of me hovering over the damage suggested I was detached from the suffering on the ground. That was not how I felt. But once that impression was formed, I couldn’t change it.”

Bush loyalists say the administration was hampered by slow and inept responses from state and local authorities in Louisiana including Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Nagin. But the president was widely blamed by the public for failing to provide emergency relief in a timely manner and for being insensitive.

Polls at the time bear out this negative assessment. A Washington Post-ABC News survey found that the bungled response to Katrina dragged down Bush’s job approval rating in mid-September 2005 to 42 percent, the lowest of his presidency until that point, while 57 percent disapproved of his performance. Only 49 percent said he could be “trusted in a crisis” compared with 60 percent who felt that way a year earlier.

“It raised fundamental questions in people’s minds about how in touch he was while there was chaos in people’s lives, and how much he cared about it,” says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. “And it raised questions about the basic competence of his administration.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, was widely blamed for failing to act quickly enough to help those affected by the storm. Yet President Bush, in a vivid example of seeming out of touch, praised FEMA director Michael Brown early in the crisis. “Brownie,” Bush said, “you’re doing a heck of a job.” These words would come back to embarrass Bush when it became clear how badly FEMA had botched its work. (Brown was eventually forced out of his job.)

Summarizing many people’s perceptions of Bush’s performance after Katrina, entertainer Kanye West said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” who were disproportionately the victims of the hurricane. Bush later called this “one of the most disgusting moments of my presidency.” Bush added: “He called me a racist. … I resent it. It’s not true.”

But Katrina remains a blot on Bush’s presidency even today.

 

By: Kenneth T. Walsh, Washington Whispers, U. S. News and World Report, August 28, 2015

August 30, 2015 Posted by | African Americans, George W Bush, Hurricane Katrina | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“State Of Disaster”: How Many Natural Disasters Will It Take For The Lone Star State To Wake Up To The Disaster Of Its Elected Officials?

As extreme weather marked by tornadoes and flooding continues to sweep across Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has requested – and President Obama has granted – federal help.

I don’t begrudge Texas billions of dollars in disaster relief. After all, we’re all part of America. When some of us are in need, we all have a duty to respond.

But the flow of federal money poses a bit of awkwardness for the Lone Star State.

After all, just over a month ago hundreds of Texans decided that a pending Navy Seal/Green Beret joint training exercise was really an excuse to take over the state and impose martial law. And they claimed the Federal Emergency Management Agency was erecting prison camps, readying Walmart stores as processing centers for political prisoners.

There are nut cases everywhere, but Texas’s governor, Greg Abbott added to that particular outpouring of paranoia by ordering the Texas State Guard to monitor the military exercise. “It is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed upon,” he said. In other words, he’d protect Texans from this federal plot.

Now, Abbott wants federal money. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency is gearing up for a major role in the cleanup – including places like Bastrop, Texas, where the Bastrop State Park dam failed – and where, just five weeks ago, a U.S. Army colonel trying to explain the pending military exercise was shouted down by hundreds of self-described patriots shouting “liar!”

Texans dislike the federal government even more than most other Americans do. According to a February poll conducted by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune, only 23 percent of Texans view the federal government favorably, while 57 percent view it unfavorably, including more than a third who hold a “very unfavorable” view.

Texas dislikes the federal government so much that eight of its congressional representatives, along with Senator Ted Cruz, opposed disaster relief for the victims of Hurricane Sandy – adding to the awkwardness of their lobbying for the federal relief now heading Texas’s way.

Yet even before the current floods, Texas had received more disaster relief than any other state, according to a study by the Center for American Progress. That’s not simply because the state is so large. It’s also because Texas is particularly vulnerable to extreme weather – tornadoes on the plains, hurricanes in the Gulf, flooding across its middle and south.

Given this, you might also think Texas would take climate change especially seriously. But here again, there’s cognitive dissonance between what the state needs and how its officials act.

Among Texas’s infamous climate-change deniers is Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, who dismissed last year’s report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as “more political than scientific,“ and the White House report on the urgency of addressing climate change as designed “to frighten Americans.”
Smith is still at it. His committee just slashed by more than 20 percent NASA’s spending on Earth science, which includes climate change.

It’s of course possible that Texas’s current record rainfalls – the National Weather Service reports that the downpour in May alone was enough to put the entire state under eight inches of water  – has  nothing to do with the kind of extreme weather we’re witnessing elsewhere in the nation, such as the West’s current drought, the North’s record winter snowfall, and flooding elsewhere.

But you’d have to be nuts not to be at least curious about such a connection, and its relationship to the carbon dioxide humans have been spewing into the atmosphere.

Consider also the consequences for the public’s health. Several deaths in Texas have been linked to the extreme weather. Many Texans have been injured by it, directly or indirectly. Poor residents are in particular peril because they live in areas prone to flooding or in flimsy houses and trailers that can be washed or blown away.

What’s Texas’s response?  Texas officials continue to turn down federal funds to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, thereby denying insurance to more than 1 million people and preventing the state from receiving an estimated $100 billion in federal cash over the next decade.

I don’t want to pick on Texas. Its officials are not alone in hating the federal government, denying climate change, and refusing to insure its poor.

And I certainly don’t want to suggest all Texans are implicated. Obviously, many thoughtful and reasonable people reside there.

Yet Texans have elected people who seem not to have a clue. Indeed, Texas has done more in recent years to institutionalize irrationality than almost anywhere else in America – thereby imposing a huge burden on its citizens.

How many natural disasters will it take for the Lone Star State to wake up to the disaster of its elected officials?

 

By: Robert Reich, The Robert Reich Blog, May 31, 2015

June 1, 2015 Posted by | Greg Abbott, Natural Disasters, Texas | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Your Money At Work”: Taxpayers Are Footing The Bill For The Site Of This Year’s Super Bowl

The tenth Super Bowl played in New Orleans, and the first since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, will kickoff in a stadium that has received more than $470 million in public support since the storm, as taxpayers have footed the bill for renovations and upgrades in the face of threats from ownership and the National Football League to move the team to another city.

In the aftermath of Katrina, New Orleans was desperate to keep the Saints from skipping town. The NFL and Saints owner Tom Benson seem to have taken advantage of that desperation, leveraging it into hundreds of millions of dollars in public support — from the city, state, and federal governments — for renovations to the decimated Superdome, which housed Katrina refugees during and after the storm. In 2009, the state committed $85 million more to keep the Saints in town and attempt to woo another Super Bowl, all while signing a lease worth $153 million in a nearby building owned by Benson.

While investors and Benson have profited from the deals, taxpayers haven’t been as lucky, Bloomberg reports:

Talks headed by then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue led to a plan to fix and renovate the Superdome with $121 million from the state, $44 million from the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District, which oversees the facility, $156 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and $15 million from the league. Blanco said a rushed bond deal followed.

Ultimately, the financing cost the district more than three times its $44 million commitment, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from state documents and interviews. […]

In April 2009, Louisiana negotiated a new lease to secure Benson’s promise to keep the team in New Orleans through 2025. The state made $85 million in fresh Superdome improvements, adding luxury seating and moving the press box. A company owned by Benson, Zelia LLC, bought the 26-story tower next to the stadium that had stood mostly vacant since Katrina and renovated it. At the time, Benson put the total cost at about $85 million. The state then signed a $153 million, 20-year lease for office space in the building, which now houses 51 state agencies, according to the Louisiana Administration Division. […]

“A lot of folks in New York made a ton of money,” [former state Treasurer John] Kennedy said. “Louisiana taxpayers didn’t do so well.”

The Superdome certainly needed renovations following Katrina. But its original construction was financed solely by taxpayers, and Benson, who is worth roughly $1.6 billion, didn’t contribute and repeatedly hinted that the Saints would move to San Antonio, Los Angeles, or another city unless taxpayers ponied up. Kennedy, the state treasurer, told Bloomberg he went into negotiations with the NFL and Benson “with a gun against my head.”

Benson isn’t alone. Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wylf used the threat of relocation to help secure public funding for a new stadium, and owners across the NFL are doing the same. Owners of the Miami Dolphins are using the promise of future Super Bowls (even though the event rarely provides the promised economic boost) to lure more money from taxpayers who are already on the hook for the city’s new baseball stadium.

The NFL’s program that provides loans to teams for new facilities is contingent on taxpayer support for at least part of the cost, and only one current NFL facility was built without some sort of public funding.

 

By: Travis Waldron, Think Progress, February 1, 2013

February 3, 2013 Posted by | Sports, Taxpayers | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Constitution? What Constitution?”: Paul Ryan Refuses To Provide For The General Welfare

When the members of the 113th Congress of the United States took office this week, they swore an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic and to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”

The preamble to that Constitution establishes its purpose: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”

The Constitution rests a special responsibility in this regard on the legislative branch of the federal government, declaring that the Congress shall use its powers to tax and spend to “provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.”

A good debate can be had about the precise meaning of “the general Welfare of the United States.” The founders had that debate—with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton differing vociferously—and it has continued in the Congress and the courts to this day.

But even in the 1790s, there was broad understanding that providing for the “general welfare” involved the taking of steps to protect the people from “misfortune, sickness, calamity or evil”—and to help them respond to such circumstances. Then, as now, “calamity” was understood to involve epic storms, floods and natural disasters.

It is difficult to imagine a recent crisis that more precisely fits the definition of “calamity” than Superstorm Sandy and its aftermath, which has left hundreds of thousands of Americans with destroyed or damaged homes and made it impossible for thousands of businesses to operate along the East Coast of the United State. Whole communities are struggling simply to return to something resembling normal.

On Friday, mere hours after swearing an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same,” the House of Representatives faced a simple vote on the most basic federal intervention on behalf of the victims of Superstorm Sandy: a measure to temporarily increase the borrowing authority of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assure that the National Flood Insurance Program could meet its obligations.

One hundred and ninety-one Democrats voted for the first real response by Congress to a disaster that occurred more than two months earlier. They were joined by 161 Republicans, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota.

But sixty-seven House members —led by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan—voted “no.” The House Budget Committee chairman termed the maintaining of the existing flood-relief program to be “irresponsible.”

Ryan, as is frequently the case when it comes to matters constitutional, was precisely wrong.

One of his few clearly defined responsibilities, one of the few clearly defined responsibilities of any House member, is “to provide for the general Welfare.” They swear an oath to do so. And, barely hours into the new Congress, Ryan and his compatriots rejected that oath and a fundamental premise of the Constitution it supports.

By: John Nichols, The Nation, January 5, 2012

January 7, 2013 Posted by | Constitution, Politics | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Opposite Of Patriotism”: Republican Resistance To Hurricane Relief Is A Stink Of Hypocrisy, And Worse

Provoked by opposition to Hurricane Sandy relief among House Republicans – and the delay in voting the first tranche of aid by Speaker John Boehner – both New Jersey governor Chris Christie and representative Peter King (R-NY) denounced the irresponsibility and cruelty of those betrayals. Even when that first bill passed, 67 Republicans voted no, in contrast with only 11 who voted no when Congress provided emergency funding for Hurricane Katrina (far more quickly, too) in 2005.

The Tea Party Republicans in Congress would offer various excuses for their hostility to Sandy relief, from budgetary constraints to far-right ideology. But those who voted no hail from states that have benefited from all kinds of federal relief over the past two decades, financed by Northeastern taxpayers who send a wildly disproportionate sum in levies to Washington every year.

Moving down the alphabet from Hurricane Andrew onward over the past two decades, it is not hard to trace tens of billions of dollars for storm relief alone that have flowed from New York and Connecticut to the South, the Gulf Coast, the Midwest and other regions over the years, with never a word of demurral over costs, “pork,” or “offsets” from other federal spending.

Then consider the many other forms of federal aid that have benefited the regions where “conservative” fiscal stringency supposedly prevails, and a disturbing habit quickly emerges: Republican members of Congress tend to support aid packages that benefit their own states or districts, while opposing help for other Americans. This doesn’t hold true for all Republicans or conservatives, of course, but it is nevertheless a detectable pattern.

The most obvious example in recent years is the rescue of the auto industry, a decision of national importance supported by both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, which nearly all Republicans rejected – except those from Michigan and auto-plant districts in several surrounding states. Those in favor included Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chair from Wisconsin, who voted for the bailout and then, while running for vice president on the GOP ticket, pretended to have opposed it. But he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Sandy relief.

The Republicans in Kansas, whose entire four-member delegation voted against Sandy relief, never voiced any opposition to the massive aid provided by the federal government in 2007 when the city of Greensburg was devastated by a Force 5 tornado – or for that matter all the other instances of disaster assistance accepted by that benighted state over the decades. Nor did the Republicans in places like Missouri or Georgia or any of the other states severely damaged by flooding in recent years suddenly stop their routine pleading for federal aid, which they duly received.

The biggest frauds are naturally to be found in Texas, one of the drought-stricken states where the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and sundry federal agencies have been spending vast sums to help farmers, ranchers, and other suffering residents. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, a right-wing Texas Republican whose district includes bone-dry Lubbock, praised those federal bureaucrats just last summer for spending funds to help farmers and ranchers in his Lubbock district “mitigate damage caused by wildfires and drought.” Quoted in a local newspaper, Neugebauer said, “I hope that FEMA will quickly follow suit and declare a major disaster declaration for affected Texas counties.” But this week, Neugebauer was one of seven Texas Republicans who voted against Sandy relief, along with fellow wingnuts from drought-afflicted districts across the South and West.

All this represents something worse than cheap hypocrisy, which often crosses political and ideological lines. The behavior of these Republicans is rooted in their selfish ideology and regional chauvinism – and their rejection of a generous spirit that has united this country for more than a hundred years. It is the opposite of patriotism.

 

By: Joe Conason, The National Memo, January 5, 2013

January 6, 2013 Posted by | Congress, Disasters | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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