By MARC SANDALOW
San Francisco Chronicle
March 04, 2006
The subject of this particular meeting happened to be a natural disaster, but to many Americans, it might as easily have been Iraq, national security or the economy.
Critics see a president ignoring warning signs, displaying no inquisitiveness and expressing unfounded confidence in his administration's capabilities, with disastrous consequences.
Supporters see an engaged chief executive taking control of a situation and being unfairly blamed for circumstances beyond his control.
There is no "smoking gun" in the Aug. 28 videotape to prove either assertion, though the publicity surrounding the conversations is likely to reinforce perceptions of Bush as ineffectual, a notion that his sinking approval ratings suggest is already widely held.
Most of the substance of the discussions between Bush and his top disaster officials has been reported previously. Yet the pictures provide a rare glimpse into the government's preparation for a disaster and fodder for Democrats such as Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, head of the House Democrats' campaign committee, who took to the House floor Thursday to declare: "Forget the compassionate conservative we were promised in 2000. At this point, I would settle for a competent conservative."
The images - played and replayed on television - are not complimentary given the advantage of hindsight.
Michael Brown, who later would resign his post as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, gives Bush a dire warning of the storm's potential, saying, "My gut tells me ... this is a bad one and a big one."
Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, warns of a "very, very grave concern" that the Lake Pontchartrain levees could overflow.
And then there is Bush, from a windowless room at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, assuring local officials that the federal government is "fully prepared" to assist during the storm and to "move in whatever resources and assets we have at our disposal after the storm."
Four days later, with hundreds of New Orleans residents dead and the city underwater, Bush insisted in an interview with ABC News: "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."
Stephen Hess, a professor at George Washington University and a one-time aide to President Dwight Eisenhower, has frequently defended Bush against his critics, but he said the tapes "remind us of the incompetence that was displayed."
"We're watching the president of the United States ... expressing confidence in what the federal government can do - and we know that the next day, all hell broke loose and they weren't there," Hess said.
"An administration that really explained itself and defined its being by how it could and would protect the American people within four years of 9/11 is given another opportunity, in another shape and form - and it was a failure," he said.
At the same time, the video demonstrates that federal officials were not ignoring Katrina's approach, even if they were not able to prevent its devastation, and that no one could foretell the damage with any certainty.
As television stations repeatedly replayed Mayfield's concerns about the levees, they mostly skipped his prediction moments earlier that New Orleans would escape serious flooding.
Mayfield, talking about a potential 12-1/2-foot storm surge in Lake Pontchartrain, said: "The big question is going to be: Will that top some of the levees? And the current track and forecast we have now suggest that there will be minimal flooding in the city of New Orleans itself."
Mayfield went on to caution that the "storm-surge model is only accurate within about 20 percent."
And there is Bush, who was criticized for staying on vacation, being briefed on a Sunday afternoon at his Texas ranch in what White House aides said was but one of numerous hurricane meetings before he returned to Washington.
"We are looking at this one videoconference in isolation," said Richard Falkenrath, former deputy homeland security adviser to Bush and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. "I wouldn't conclude based on this that this was the full extent to his involvement."
Falkenrath said that videoconferences in such instances are common but that the more people involved, the less candid the discussions tend to be. He noted that for all the warnings of the storm's potential, there was little discussion from any staff members about evacuating residents or other steps that could have been taken to minimize the catastrophe.
The political potency of the issue was evident Thursday night as a bipartisan delegation of 34 members of Congress from 18 states descended on New Orleans for a post-Mardi Gras look at reconstruction efforts.
Before she left Washington, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said, "The video is an eloquent statement."
"It speaks very clearly to the fact that there was a predictable tragedy that was about to befall the people of that region, and the administration's response was inadequate," said Pelosi, who led the delegation to New Orleans with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
Bush supporters remained largely quiet about the videotape, which came to light two weeks after House Republicans issued a blistering report that criticized the federal government's response to the tragedy.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com
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