The Storm Before the Balm

If you lived through 9/11 in New York you have nothing worthy of the city, its people, and the event worth saying that has not already been said, or, if you do opinions for a living and are relatively sane, has not been said by you. I will tell you only this. For something like four years 9/11 was for me a bruise in my heart. Someone would refer to it or I’d see a picture in a newspaper and I’d experience it as a pressing on the bruise, and I’d hurt. My feelings were immediately accessible and immediately there.

This year for the first time it is not a bruise but a scar—jagged, less open to remedy, comparatively numb. My heart has healed and is ever altered. There are about 30 million people in what we used to call the tristate area. That’s roughly 30 million people who one way or another saw what happened that day, the smoke was that high. I wonder if many of them feel as I do: a scar now, not a bruise. I am not sure of the meaning of that if they do, but I suspect there is meaning.

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Life moves. Time for a quick appraisal of how Katrina and its aftermath changed the lay of the presidential land.

George W. Bush still enjoys a bright spot in terms of his foes. Liberal politicians continue to respond to the calamity with delighted anguish. Their critiques are attacks and their attacks are opportunistic. Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi have come across as pols coolly using the suffering of others to club the opposition. As for liberal pundits, some of them have taken on the ways of mere party operatives: Every event exists to be used. Frank Rich, Paul Krugman: if they were dead they’d be spinning in their graves.

What’s true in terms of the criticism?

“Katrina changed everything.” No it didn’t, but it changed a lot. It gave the administration its first indisputable domestic black eye. Roughly half the country has been attacking President Bush for an inadequate response and roughly half the country has been defending him by pointing the finger elsewhere or parsing the federal role in local emergency response. But no one is walking around saying, “Was this his best moment or what? A triumph!” Because no one thinks it was.

But a president can’t control everything! True. Federal power is and must be limited. But the White House made two big mistakes. The first was not to see that New Orleans early on was becoming a locus of civil unrest. When an American city descends into lawlessness, and as in this case that lawlessness hampers or prevents the rescue of innocents, you send in the 82nd Airborne. You move your troops. You impose and sustain order. You protect life and property. Then you leave. That’s what government is for. It’s what Republicans are for. The White House didn’t move quickly, and that was the failure from which all failure flowed. The administration was slow to see the size, scope, variations and implications of the disaster because it was not receiving and responding to reliable reports from military staff on the ground. Because they weren’t there. When the administration moved, it moved, and well. But it took too long.

Second, lame gazing out the window is mere spin, not action. Soulful looks from the plane are spin. The White House was spinning when it should have been acting. I do not agree with the critique that Mr. Bush should have done a speech with a lot of “emoting.” This is the kind of thing said by clever people who think everyone else is dumb. Bill Clinton felt everyone’s pain, and that is remembered as a joke. What was Mr. Bush supposed to do, criticize the hurricane and make it feel bad? Say that the existence of bad weather is at odds with the American dream? Hurricanes come, disasters occur; don’t talk, move. In this area the administration has gotten way too clever while at the same time becoming stupider.

What real damage has been done to the White House? It got dinged in three areas: competence, the myth of luck, and the ability to inspire fear.

On the competence issue, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is the poster child. It was the assumption of Republicans and others that in this, the age of emergency, the managerial competence and constitutional seriousness of the Bush administration was on the case, on the job and taking care of business. But FEMA was stacked with hacks. This has been absorbed by people and will linger as an issue.

As for the myth of luck, in Washington it comes down to this. When a president is lucky, Congress and the media think he’s lucky. It increases his power. When people see his power they think he’s powerful. Then something happens—an earthquake, a flood, a strange scandal. The myth of luck disappears. Foes in the media and on the Hill draw blood. They are startled when they see the blood, and go for more. Things become difficult for the administration. This happens one way or another with every presidency. It just happened here.

As for fear, it is important for a White House to inspire a certain amount, and this White House has been rather wickedly good at it. The administration has kept a lot of Republicans in line because they were afraid of the personal anger and flip-switching power of the president and his aides. They will be less afraid now. That’s not all bad. In fact, it’s good.

Didn’t Mr. Bush stop the criticism Tuesday when he said he accepts responsibility? To a degree. Tonight’s speech will help, too. But Tuesday’s statement was a day late and a buck short. When you say “I accept responsibility,” you are slyly complimenting yourself: I’m the kind of fellow who nobly accepts culpability. It’s more to the point and more effective to be straight and unvarnished: “The buck stops here. The blame is mine.” This has the added benefit of leaving people more likely to say, ‘Oh, don’t be so tough on yourself,” than, “Hey, you can be a lot tougher on yourself, Buddy.”

Is the Bush Era over? No, no, no. It has three more years. That’s a long time. History turns on a dime. There is much ahead, and potential for progress.

What about reports the President’s leadership style has grown detached and self-indulgent? This criticism is a standard one liberals have used about Republican presidents since Eisenhower. What they really mean in this case is that he’s grown more peckish and irritable. This, from this week’s Time magazine is, to old White House hands at least, not good news. “ ‘The first time I told him he was wrong, he started yelling at me,’ the aide recalled about a session during the first term. ‘Then I showed him where he was wrong, and he said, “All right, I understand. Good job.” He patted me on the shoulder. I went and had dry heaves in the bathroom.’ “ One hopes this is hyperbole. If not, it’s a bad sign. No president should have that effect on his aides, and no president should be surrounded by dry heavers.

Mr. Bush is famously flinty. I sometimes think of what a friend said of him years ago: There are two misconceptions about Mr. Bush; one is that he’s dumb, and the other is that he’s sweet. He puts great emphasis on personal loyalty, and personal loyalty is important. But when that preference becomes a governing ethos, you wind up surrounded only by loyalists. His father wound up surrounded by tennis players. This doesn’t help you govern.

It’s important, five years into a presidency, for a president to remember he’s probably no longer fully surrounded by aides who knew him when he was first running for governor and walking around in his shorts practicing speeches. The people who work for him now first saw him as a Time magazine cover. This can be fun—it’s a relief to awe someone when the rest of the world is beating your head in—but again, it doesn’t help govern.

Mr. Bush probably needed a humbling experience. He just got one. May he absorb, understand, keep the helpful lessons, ignore the unhelpful ones, and waste no time being mad. And may he reach out to some old wise heads on the Democratic side who can give him a read on how his honest critics view him.

Don’t all presidents ultimately get criticized for their inadequate personalities? Yes. And the criticism is always fair. All presidents have inadequate personalities, because there is no human personality equal to the demands of the modern presidency.

Can Mr. Bush dig out and move forward? Yes. He will start that process tonight in his speech. Some thought on the future will come from me next week, but here’s a teaser:

The Republican Party right now is torn. It has muscle tears you can’t see when you look at the body of the party, but they are there, and deepening. In the natural scheme of things the party would fight out its big issues in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Now I suspect the fight will begin sooner. And that’s good.

There’s much on the table that has to be addressed—immigration, spending, the size of government—including the very nature and purpose of modern conservatism. Getting serious about these questions will be helpful to the country, and helpful to those who begin this overdue heavy lifting. Why shouldn’t the president summon forth, ask the help of and highlight the presence of the governors, congressmen and senators who will soon enough be trying to run the party themselves? They’re coming anyway. Why not invite them? And work with them. And, as a side benefit, subtly get a little of the heat off your dramatic self?