Monday, August 28, 2006 - it was Katrina Day -
President Bush saluted the resilience of Hurricane Katrina survivors here Monday and promised that their plight hadn't been forgotten a year after the storm cut a swath of death and destruction along the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts.
"Even though we've been through about one year together, one year doesn't mean that we'll forget," Bush told community leaders at a luncheon in Biloxi, Miss. "As a matter of fact, now is the time to renew our commitment to let people down here know that we will stay involved and help the people of Mississippi rebuild their lives."
Bush's stops in Mississippi and New Orleans were part of a two-day trip to mark the first anniversary of a hurricane that killed 1,695 people, displaced 770,000 others and caused at least $96 billion in damage when it hit land on Aug. 29, 2005.
Bush is using the anniversary to reassure gulf residents and Americans that his administration is on top of the recovery effort after doing an admittedly poor job in the initial days following the hurricane.
Well, there was a lot to do on that front, with Ernesto bearing down on his brother's Florida that day, and at the time working itself up to become some sort of hurricane, not just a "tropical storm." People needed to know the government, to which they had paid taxes for basic services, wasn't going to flake out on them again.
That called for PR - the White House had the week before put out a four-page document detailing what the administration has done for Gulf Coast residents in the past year, securing a hundred and ten billion in federal funds for recovery efforts, repairs to the damaged levee system and for removing many, many tons of post-storm debris from the gulf. But how hard was that? Like the congress, controlled by his own party, wasn't going to vote for the clean-up? No one had to twist any arms anywhere, heroically forcing the stingy bastards in congress to do the right thing. No one would, and no one did vote against helping here.
But then, only seventy-seven billion of the total funding has been released so far, and of that only forty-four billion spent, mostly going to big corporations in bed with the Republicans. There was the seventeen billion to rebuild over two hundred thousand homes, and after a full year that money is just starting to be released. Federal emergency officials, the DHS-FEMA crew, have said they're sure that the levees are ready for a major hurricane - the head of the Army Corps of Engineers, the guys who did the repairs, said it's not exactly clear whether the levees can withstand a big hurricane. Who are you going to believe?
The Knight-Ridder item linked here also quotes the president, kind of getting it - "I know there's some frustration. The checks have begun to roll. They're beginning to move."
After one full year, will "the check is in the mail" do here?
Maybe not. There's the latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll - all of thirty-one percent of Americans now approve of the way Bush handled the hurricane, down a full fifteen points from a year ago, and fifty-six percent of us don't believe that the country is ready for another disaster of any kind. The administration has a hill to climb here.
This is not helped by a number of Democrats planning a conference call for Tuesday morning, along with the Campaign for America's Future, to outline the federal government's "failures" and to charge that hurricane rescue and recovery was hurt by "the conservative ideology of disinvestment, cronyism and corruption."
And Nancy Pelosi released a broadside ending with this -
Americans deserve more than no-bid contracts, bureaucratic inefficiencies and a too little, too late PR campaign. One year later, the Gulf Coast continues to need the financial, health care, education, housing and small business support that they deserve to turn devastated neighborhoods into thriving communities. And we still need an independent commission, modeled after the 9/11 Commission, to find out what exactly went wrong, why it went wrong, and how to fix it.
I can even give a hint about where the biggest problem is. Start at the top.
And then there were the pranksters.
CNN reports on them here, figuring out a little too late it was a hoax.
It was The Yes Men, the guys responsible for the Halliburton SurvivaBall (to protect managers against rapid climate change), and a hamburger made from human waste (to solve the global hunger crisis). They were the subject of the 2003 documentary The Yes Men - "A comedic documentary which follows The Yes Men, a small group of prankster activists, as they gain world-wide notoriety for impersonating the World Trade Organization on television and at business conferences around the world." (They fess up here.)
People are always too late to get it - they're not who they say they are. The trick is to start off sounding quite reasonable (and dress right). Then you get people to nod yes to all sorts of foolishness. And they fooled New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, and a full thousand construction-industry members at a privately-organized conference in Kenner, Louisiana.
It seems Andy Bichlbaum posed as a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) official, a Rene Oswin, and pulled it off. He said the government was really going to help, and so was private industry.
Exxon and Shell would spend $8.6 billion "to finance wetlands rebuilding from $60 billion in profits this year." Wal-Mart would withdraw its stores from poor neighborhoods and "help nurture local businesses to replace them." The federal government would spend $180 million to fund "at least one well-equipped public health clinic for every housing development." And the kicker - the federal government would reverse plans to replace public schools with private and charter schools, and instead create a national tax base to supplement local taxes.
HUD hurriedly confirmed Oswin wasn't part of their agency. Their spokeswoman Donna White - "This announcement is totally false; it's totally bogus. I'm like, who the heck is that?"
And she added - "It's really a sick, twisted - I don't even want to refer to it as a joke. At this point, it's not funny."
No, it isn't. The people and organizations that have the power to do good, and the government, which has the mandate to do good, don't do that sort of thing. It's not funny at all.
As for the president's problem, other than that nasty Yes Men hoax, Sheryl Gay Stolberg in the New York Times puts it nicely here -
When Americans record the legacy of George W. Bush, 43rd president and self-described compassionate conservative, two competing images will help tell the tale.
The first is of Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, bullhorn in hand, feet planted firmly in the rubble of New York's twin towers. The second is of him aboard Air Force One, on his way to Washington from Crawford, Texas, peering out the window at the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina below.
If the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina called into question the president's competence, that Air Force One snapshot, coupled with wrenching scenes on the ground of victims who were largely poor and black, called into question something equally important to Bush: his compassion.
A year later, he has yet to recover on either front.
Perhaps that's because the compassion is "self-described." There's not a whole lot empirical evidence for much compassion. But then, this administration is not big on empirical evidence.
And the Times item quotes James Thurber - not, not that one - the director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington - "This is a real black mark on his administration, and it's going to stay with him for a long time. It will be in every textbook."
And then there's Senator Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat - "I might argue that this was the worst thing that's happened to George Bush in the whole six years of his presidency. It was a perception-altering event. People had questioned his ideology. People had even questioned his intelligence. But before this, average people rarely questioned his competence or his caring."
That's followed by an array of "man in the street" quotes from Republicans who are fed up, followed by quotes from politicians on both sides who say he really does care - but that's just filler.
Better is this analysis from Matthew Yglesias, saying the president's political persona (whatever that might be) has been under-analyzed -
It's a strange thing primarily because Bush didn't really do anything on 9/11 or its immediate aftermath. Terrorists hijacked four planes and sought to crash them into buildings. They succeeded in doing so with three of the planes. Thousands died. The physical destruction was enormous. It was terrible. But it wasn't quite as bad as it could have been. The passengers on one plane downed it before it could reach its target. Many people were evacuated from the World Trade Center and their lives were saved. But none of the good work that was done on that day - and there was some good, heroic work done - was done by the president or had anything in particular to do with him.
Rather, the good vibes about 9/11 Bush all, in essence, relate to a series of speeches he gave in the days following the event (his immediate evening-of speech was poorly received). And I think they were good speeches. The rubble/bullhorn event was a good event. The address to a joint session of congress was great, too. But what does that all really amount to?
Not nothing. Providing inspirational rhetorical leadership in a time of panic is legitimately part of the president's job. But it still doesn't add up to very much. A speech is just a speech. It's not, moreover, like this was a DeGaulle or Churchill type situation where the disaster struck and then a new leader stepped forward to take the reigns of authority from those who had failed and gave a speech to mark a new beginning. His popularity skyrocketed because, having failed to foil a serious terrorist plot, he made a series of pleasing remarks about the plot. And ever since that day, I think this dynamic has been infecting our national strategy. The main goal, in essence, is to do things that signify the adoption of an appropriate attitude toward hostile elements in the world rather than to evaluate possible courses of action in terms of their effects.
The debate on Iraq is just awash in this. The war gets discussed as if it's a metaphor of some kind. A good opportunity to demonstrate resolve or commitment, or else the lack thereof. A place where our stick-to-it-tiveness will show how strongly we feel that democracy is good. A shadow theater wherein we send messages to al-Qaeda or Iran or what have you. But, of course, Iraq is a real place. The soldiers and civilians in that country are real people. They shoot real bullets and detonate real explosives. And so the question has to be, what, actually, is being achieved? What more might realistically be achieved? What are the consequences - not intentions, not desires, not hopes, but consequences - of our policies?
That's about right. The intentions and right attitude aren't much good for the people of New Orleans, or for the peoples of the Middle East. It's as if the quite predictable consequences of any policy don't matter - showing resolve does. And it's not helping.
Or maybe these guys just have a screw loose, as Kurt Vonnegut suggests in his latest book, the collection of essays, A Man Without a Country -
… I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers. Sometimes I wish it had been. What has happened instead is that it was taken over by means of the sleaziest, low-comedy, Keystone Cops-style coup d'etat imaginable.
I was once asked if I had any ideas for a really scary reality TV show. I have one reality show that would really make your hair stand on end: "C- Students from Yale."
George W. Bush has gathered around him upper-crust C- students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka Christians, and plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or PPs, the medical term for smart, personable people who have no consciences.
To say somebody is a PP is to make perfectly respectable diagnosis, like saying he or she has appendicitis or athlete's foot. The classic medical text on PPs is The Mask of Sanity by Dr. Hervey Cleckley, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Medical College of Georgia, published in 1941. Read it! [Out of print, but used copied of the 1988 edition available here, starting at only $109.83! - AMP]
Some people are born deaf, some are born blind or whatever, and this book is about congenitally defective human beings of a sort that is making this whole country and many other parts of the planet go completely haywire nowadays. These were people born without consciences, and suddenly they are taking charge of everything.
PPs are presentable, they know full well the suffering their actions may cause others, but they do not care. They cannot care because they are nuts. They have a screw loose!
And what syndrome better describes so many executives at Enron and WorldCom and on and on, who have enriched themselves while ruining their employees and investors and country and who still feel as pure as the driven snow, no matter what anybody may say to or about them? And they are waging a war that is making billionaires out of millionaires, and trillionaires out of billionaires, and they own television, and they bankroll George Bush, and not because he's against gay marriage.
So many of these heartless PPs now hold big jobs in our federal government, as though they were leaders instead of sick. They have taken charge. They have taken charge of communications and the schools, so we might as well be Poland under occupation.
They might have felt that taking our country into an endless war was simply something decisive to do. What has allowed so many PPs to rise so high in corporations, and now in government, is they are so decisive. They are going to do something every fuckin' day and they are not afraid. Unlike normal people, they are never filled with any doubts, for the simple reason that they don't give a fuck what happens next. Simply can't. Do this! Do that! Mobilize the reserves! Privatize the public schools! Attack Iraq! Cut health care! Tap everybody's telephone! Cut taxes on the rich! Build a trillion-dollar missile shield! Fuck habeas corpus and the Sierra Club and In these Times, and kiss my ass!
Well, Vonnegut is a bitter old man now. But old men know things.
And if the third of the country that still supports the president reads Vonnegut, this might happen -
By now the brain circuits of the authoritarians and their followers are breaking down. Ken Lay's did, and he killed himself. Rush Phlegmball's did, so he turned to painkillers. George Bush never had any circuits. The man used to blow up frogs with firecrackers. Now he blows up children with bombs. He can't feel a thing. Who will do the post-mortem on the brains of these psychopaths? Whoever it is, surely they will find broken circuits.
Maybe so, but the "C- Students from Yale" are in charge. And they have no doubts. That seems to impress people no end. They're deadly serious, and they tell you so. And they're the only serious ones - everyone else is frivolous and wrong. They're changing the world. You cannot laugh at them.
One thinks of what Carl Sagan once said - "They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."
There was a lot of bitter laughter on Katrina Day.
It should be noted that the one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina got short shrift in the media, as did the wars, and Iran's ambitions, and the economy (new data - ninety percent of all workers are worse off than at any time since 1947), because the same day brought America this - "Schoolteacher John Mark Karr will not be charged with the murder of 6-year-old beauty pageant competitor JonBenet Ramsey, Karr's attorney said Monday."
The guy was a creep, or is a creep, but the crime scene evidence was clear - the DNA wasn't his, and there were no prints or anything else of his anywhere. He says he killed the kid, and they've dropped all charges. They canceled the arraignment hearing. He just wanted to be the murderer. He's one sick puppy.
America is amazed, and confused, and wonders who done it, so to speak. That sucked up all the airtime, and the column inches in the press. Katrina and the wars got pushed into the background. Damn, the OJ thing was more fun - we got a cool trial. Now we get nothing.
The whole thing left the Colorado governor, Bill Owens, saying things like this -
Unfortunately, the hysterics surrounding John Mark Karr served only to distract Boulder officials from doing their job, which should be solving the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. I find it incredible that Boulder authorities wasted thousands of taxpayer dollars to bring Karr to Colorado given such a lack of evidence. (District Attorney) Mary Lacy should be held accountable for the most extravagant and expensive DNA test in Colorado history.
Yeah, well, whatever. The case is ten years old and nobody's business, outside the family involved and their friends. Yes, murderers should be caught and convicted and all. But this one ten-year-old case capturing the imagination of the nation? Ah, it's a compelling diversion from the far too real stuff, the stuff you actually don't want to matter - and it's full of safe vicarious thrills. It'll do. The other stuff is too depressing, and dangerous.
And out here in Los Angeles, the Sunday paper brought a four page promo for a movie about an unsolved Los Angeles murder from that same year, 1947 - Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia, based on the James Ellroy novel. It opens September 15, but the promo was four pages of precise reproductions of every article on the case the Los Angeles Times printed in January 1947 - so it looked just like a regular news section. It seems no case is too cold for the American public. We do need other scary things to think about. The otherness is important, and it's Universal Studios to the rescue.
It may be a good idea to check the trade papers and walk up to the premier at the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, whenever it is, and take some pictures for Just Above Sunset - maybe, now that he's free, John Mark Karr will jump out from the crowd and say he did it. You never know.
Some of us, of course, like plain old diverting news stories like this -
A woman in Hohhot, the capital of north China's Inner Mongolia region, crashed her car while giving her dog a driving lesson, the official Xinhua News Agency said Monday.
No injuries were reported although both vehicles were slightly damaged, it said.
The woman, identified only be her surname, Li, said her dog "was fond of crouching on the steering wheel and often watched her drive," according to Xinhua.
"She thought she would let the dog 'have a try' while she operated the accelerator and brake," the report said. "They did not make it far before crashing into an oncoming car."
Xinhua did not say what kind of dog or vehicles were involved but Li paid for repairs.
That's amusing, and reminds us we've let the dog drive for six years.