10/24/2005 06:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Profile in Cowardice

“Good evening. I am speaking to you from the city of New Orleans – nearly empty, still partly underwater and waiting for life and hope to return.” This is President Bush’s opening remarks in a speech from Jackson Square of New Orleans outlining his greatly anticipated Hurricane Katrina response plan.

That was September 15th. Today it is October 24th. More than one month after Katrina, the Gulf Coast still waits for a President’s leadership. Hope has not returned and President Bush’s promise of a Gulf Opportunity Zone (among other things) is being ripped to shreds by the far-right wing of his own party – a wing that seems to control the President more than he controls it.

This past week the op-ed pages of The Washington Post and The New York Times have rightly turned a spotlight on the Republican House leadership’s attempt to drive through a vote to begin cutting $50 billion from Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. Both Democrats and Republicans agree: costs must be controlled in the Katrina rebuilding effort. But at issue in this week’s vote are the particular relief programs on the chopping block and those not.

As Harold Meyerson highlighted in a Post editorial on Wednesday, these cuts, if approved, will be made primarily to programs for the poor and displaced, such as emergency Medicaid coverage, student reenrollment loans and food stamps. At the same time funding for defense and infrastructure contractors (both are groups who line the pockets of Republican candidates) will be almost entirely maintained. The choice – rich over poor – so clearly evident in these handpicked cuts bleeds a most callous form of inhumanity.

To put what the House leadership is undertaking in a larger context, lest we forget President Bush’s September 15th speech. At Jackson Square Bush declared, “a number of states have taken in evacuees…and admitted children to school and provided health care. So I will work with Congress to ensure that states are reimbursed for these extra expenses.”

Mr. President, the House leadership is making bad on this very promise. What to do? Do what you said you would – go work with Congress.

But the President has done nothing of the kind and, if anything, his administration has placed its conservative base before the people of the Gulf Coast. On September 8, 2005, the President announced the suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act. Passed in 1931, Davis-Bacon sets a minimum pay scale for workers on federal contracts by requiring contractors to pay the prevailing or average pay in their region.

The law was passed during the Great Depression as a way to guarantee workers employed by federal projects a wage competitive with local salaries. It served the dual-purpose of first, providing needed Depression era public works projects with reliable labor and second, fairly compensating workers as they endeavored to rebuild their own broken communities.

On America’s Gulf Coast, 2005 is 1931. Yet the President is asking displaced Americans to raise their cities of ruin without a just guarantee of fair compensation. His message says, ‘We will rebuild your cities, your roads and your infrastructure. But what we rebuild will not be for you to call home.’

Taken in the context of the Great Depression, canceling Davis-Bacon and cutting Medicaid and school reenrollment funding for Katrina’s victims come together to form a most cruel historic irony.

At his Second Inaugural address in 1937, Franklin Delanor Roosevelt boldly proclaimed, “the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.” With the New Deal, Roosevelt followed through.

At Jackson Square on September 15th, the President’s rhetoric harked back to the voice of FDR as he offered, “let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality.”

But the President is leading no such rise. Instead, he is guaranteeing that yesterday’s inequality on the Gulf Coast will become tomorrow’s injustice. And yes, history will find moral failure in Bush’s decision, but this is a lesson America has already learned.

It is the lesson of President Herbert Hoover’s failure to act and the era of a depression. George W. Bush is today’s Herbert Hoover of the Gulf Coast. His story is a contemporary Profile in Cowardice.