Saturday, September 10, 2005


WWRD: What Would Reagan Do?

The First Lady calls charges of a racial blindness in the administration's handling of the problem, "disgusting." Indeed, they may be. However, they arise partly because the president and his advisers failed to see, speak and act as if a calamity was happening to a major American city.

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. The major problem facing the Bush administration is whether it can on-the-fly fill the political vacuum created by its initial response to Hurricane Katrina. Tomorrow, the president will again visit the Gulf Coast region (following Vice President Cheney's own trip there).

Whether this third visit will help, the political damage may have already been done -- as the saying goes, "you never get a second chance to make a first impression." There is a reason why some of the president's strongest supporters were aghast at his first speech back in Washington
addressing the situation. With a bland laundry list and a seeming lack of empathy, the president acted more like a generic politician.

The institutional symbolism imbued in the office of the presidency is of such great power that the words produced from that office can convey just as great a meaning as any actions. It is a power that is being remarkably under-utilized during the Katrina aftermath.

The disconnect continued last week. It was Thursday, September 8, nine days after the enormity of the crisis was known, the White House finally announced a "National Day of Prayer and Remembrance" -- for September 16, more than two weeks after the hurricane hit. For comparison's sake, the National Day of Mourning after the terrorist attacks was September 14 -- the same day as the now-famous "bullhorn" moment. As another comparison, ten years ago, Bill Clinton announced post-Oklahoma City a national day of mourning for April 23, four days after the bombing.

Perhaps America doesn't need a Clinton-style emotional pep talk. Fair enough. Terrorist attacks -- whether domestically or foreign-initiated -- are different. Perhaps.

However, one can fairly ask: "WWRD -- What Would Reagan Do?" Wouldn't he stand up and speak to a nation that has, for the time being, lost one of its major cities? Wouldn't there have been some sort of grand statement made by the man who could say these

We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."

Yes, that was a different time -- and certainly the first time that Americans had seen such a catastrophic, midflight, failure of the American space program. A previously-scheduled State of the Union address was postponed because of the tragedy. Reagan instead used a brief portion of that evening time to comfort a nation.

Which is precisely the point -- that is a role that only the president can perform. It is to recognize when a unique and tragic event has occurred and help guide the nation in a conversation of what this means.

What is most remarkable is that a White House that saw the value of announcing a new Supreme Court nominee in
prime time couldn't see a similar country-rallying benefit in doing something similar in the wake of Katrina.

Merely from a coldly political viewpoint, such an action would have, for at least 15 or 20 minutes, stopped the parade of harrowing pictures coming into American households -- and the various commentary and gut-wrenching emotional reporting. The president would have his say. To use the current in vogue phrase, Bush could have "
framed" the situation. The fact that the statement was coming from the Oval Office of the White House would give it a gravity that his various comments on the White House lawn and on airport tarmac in the affected areas just lacked.

Black leaders want to say that Bush treated New Orleans differently because the victims were black. Those charges may be unfair, however, they arose out of an an untended environment: The president rhetorically never managed to address this calamity with the sense of national significance that the moment demanded.

Subsequent multiple presidential visits to the region and the passage of $62 billion in federal aid shouldn't be ignored. But, is it almost a case of "too much, too late"?

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