Sunday, September 11, 2005
The Boy in the Bubble:
Aux duck pits, citoyens!
How Bush blew it
Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a motherly but steely figure known by the nickname Queen Bee, knew that she needed help. But she wasn't quite sure what. At about 8 p.m., she spoke to Bush. "Mr. President," she said, "we need your help. We need everything you've got."
Bush, the governor later recalled, was reassuring. But the conversation was all a little vague. Blanco did not specifically ask for a massive intervention by the active-duty military. "She wouldn't know the 82nd Airborne from the Harlem Boys' Choir," said an official in the governor's office, who did not wish to be identified talking about his boss's conversations with the president. There are a number of steps Bush could have taken, short of a full-scale federal takeover, like ordering the military to take over the pitiful and (by now) largely broken emergency communications system throughout the region. But [Bush], who was in San Diego preparing to give a speech the next day on the war in Iraq, went to bed.
[After the 17th Street level was breeched,] Bush was told at 5 a.m. Pacific Coast time [that the city was in serious trouble] and immediately decided to cut his vacation short. To his senior advisers, living in the insular presidential bubble, the mere act of lopping off a couple of presidential vacation days counts as a major event. ... Bush blithely proceeded with the rest of his schedule for the day, accepting a gift guitar at one event and pretending to riff like Tom Cruise in "Risky Business." ... The radio was reporting water nine feet deep at the corner of Napoleon and St. Charles streets.
The one federal agency that is supposed to handle disasters—FEMA—was dysfunctional. ... FEMA's boss, Bush's close friend Joe Allbaugh, quit when he lost his cabinet seat. (Now a consultant, Allbaugh was down on the Gulf Coast last week looking for contracts for his private clients.) Allbaugh replaced himself with his college buddy Mike Brown, whose last private-sector job (omitted from his official resume) had been supervising horse-show judges for the International Arabian Horse Association.
For most of those first few days, Bush was hearing what a good job the Feds were doing. Bush likes "metrics," numbers to measure performance, so the bureaucrats gave him reassuring statistics. At a press availability on Wednesday, Bush duly rattled them off: there were 400 trucks transporting 5.4 million meals and 13.4 million liters of water along with 3.4 million pounds of ice. Yet it was obvious to anyone watching TV that New Orleans had turned into a Third World hellhole.
The denial and the frustration finally collided aboard Air Force One on Friday. As the president's plane sat on the tarmac at New Orleans airport, a confrontation occurred that was described by one participant as "as blunt as you can get without the Secret Service getting involved." Governor Blanco was there, along with various congressmen and senators and Mayor Nagin (who took advantage of the opportunity to take a shower aboard the plane). One by one, the lawmakers listed their grievances as Bush listened. Rep. Bobby Jindal, whose district encompasses New Orleans, told of a sheriff who had called FEMA for assistance. According to Jindal, the sheriff was told to e-mail his request, "and the guy was sitting in a district underwater and with no electricity," Jindal said, incredulously. "How does that make any sense?" Jindal later told NEWSWEEK that "almost everybody" around the conference table had a similar story about how the federal response "just wasn't working." With each tale, "Bush just shook his head, as if he couldn't believe what he was hearing," says Jindal, a conservative Republican and Bush appointee who lost a close race to Blanco. Repeatedly, the president turned to his aides and said, "Fix it."
A debate over "federalizing" the National Guard had been rattling in Washington for the previous three days. Normally, the Guard is under the control of the state governor, but the Feds can take over—if the governor asks them to. Nagin suggested that Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, the Pentagon's on-scene commander, be put in charge. According to Senator Vitter, Bush turned to Governor Blanco and said, "Well, what do you think of that, Governor?" Blanco told Bush, "I'd rather talk to you about that privately." To which Nagin responded, "Well, why don't you do that now?"
The meeting broke up. Bush and Blanco disappeared to talk. More than a week later, there was still no agreement. Blanco didn't want to give up her authority, and Bush didn't press.
Late last week, Bush was, by some accounts, down and angry. But another Bush aide described the atmosphere inside the White House as "strangely surreal and almost detached." At one meeting described by this insider, officials were oddly self-congratulatory, perhaps in an effort to buck each other up. Life inside a bunker can be strange, especially in defeat.
Aux duck pits, citoyens!