The president's 35-minute Air Force One flyover of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama was the perfect metaphor for his entire presidency: detached, disconnected, and disengaged. Preferring to take in America's suffering -- whether caused by the war in Iraq or Hurricane Katrina -- from a distance. In this case, 2,500 feet.
Apparently, the president "sat somberly on a couch on the left hand side of the presidential jumbo jet peering out the window" at the catastrophe below, joined at different times by White House staffers including Karl Rove and Scott McClellan. McClellan later quoted the president as saying, "It's devastating. It's got to be doubly devastating on the ground." Ya think?? Hey, here's an idea, Mr. President: maybe you should, y'know, get off the plane and see for yourself?
Instead, he jetted on to Washington for a brisk 9-minute Rose Garden speech designed to let us know that his administration was doing everything in its power to mitigate the looming PR disaster the flooding of New Orleans could create for the White House... Uh, I mean, everything in its power to aid the recovery.
The speech contained the usual Bush bonhomie (he's "confident" New Orleans "will be back on its feet, and America will be a stronger place for it"). But the most telling moment came when the president discussed the ways his administration was moving to help ease the suffering of profit-soaked oil companies impacted by the storm, pointing out that he had instructed Energy Secretary Sam Bodman to work with refineries to "alleviate any shortage through loans" and that the EPA had waived clean air standards for gasoline and diesel fuels in all 50 states. You could almost see him getting misty.
He also unleashed a torrent of facts and figures: "The Department of Transportation has provided more than 400 trucks to move 1,000 truckloads containing 5.4 million Meals Ready to Eat -- or MREs, 13.4 million liters of water, 10,400 tarps, 3.4 million pounds of ice, 144 generators, 20 containers of pre-positioned disaster supplies, 135,000 blankets and 11,000 cots." It was as if by piling so many disparate numbers so high he might be able to block out the two most significant numbers of all: the number of National Guardsmen unable to help out in Louisiana and Mississippi because they are deployed in Iraq, and the tens of millions of hurricane and flood-control dollars that never made it to Lake Pontchartrain because they had been diverted to Iraq.
The president's Rose Garden speech followed an all-hands-on-deck press briefing earlier in the day featuring Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and as many cabinet members and agency heads could be crammed around a podium, including Bodman of Energy, Mineta of Transportation, Johnson of the EPA, Leavitt of HHS, and McHale of DoD. It had the feel of the old circus bit where clown after clown after clown piles out of the impossibly small car.
And, like the president, Chertoff and company came armed with plenty of designed-to-obfuscate numbers. In one head-spinning riff, Chertoff rattled off info on "39 disaster medical assistance teams," "1,700 trailer trucks," "truckloads of water, ice, meals, medical supplies, generators, tents and tarpaulins," as well as the Coast Guard's "three national strike teams" and other "ships, boats and aircraft" that had "worked heroically for the last 48 hours, rescuing and assisting well more than 1,000 people who were in distress." But still no mention of those unavailable Guardsmen or the funds that were taken away from shoring up Lake Pontchartrain and shipped over to Iraq.
Those are the blood red elephants floating belly-up in the middle of this deadly disaster -- and the reason for the full-court PR press.
During his press briefing, Chertoff declared the aftermath of Katrina "an incident of national significance." It's clear from Bush and his team's actions how worried they are that, as the facts come out, it will become "an incident of political significance" as well.