All Katrina All The Time

The week after the storm, the covers of the nation’s major newsweeklies all focus on Hurricane Katrina: At Time it’s “An American Tragedy”; at U.S. News & World Report it’s “What Went Wrong”; at Newsweek it’s “Pray For Us.”

Time most succinctly sums up the lingering incredulity at the government’s response:

[B]y the time President Bush touched down in the tormented region on Friday, more than just the topography had changed. Shattered too was a hope that four years after the greatest man-made disaster in our history, we had got smarter about catastrophe, more nimble and visionary in our ability to respond. Is it really possible, after so many commissions and commitments, bureaucracies scrambled and rewired, emergency supplies stockpiled and propositioned, that when a disaster strikes, the whole newfangled system just seizes up and can’t move?

In a separate report, “Dipping His Toe Into Disaster,” reporter Matt Cooper comes down hard on the president. He runs through a series of arguably “tone-deaf” moments by Bush — from praising FEMA director Michael Brown to his declaration that he would look forward to sitting on Trent Lott’s rebuilt porch one day — before writing, “Bush seemed so regularly out of it last week, it made you wonder if he was stuck in the same White House bubble of isolation that confined his Dad. Too often, W. looked annoyed. Or he smiled when he should have been serious. Or he swaggered when simple action would have been the right move.”

At the end, Cooper writes of suggestions that Colin Powell or perhaps Rudy Giuliani should be tapped to direct the relief operation — and then, incredibly, he muses, “Given the president’s own performance, passing the buck wouldn’t be the worst thing.”

In The New Yorker, David Remnick is even harsher. Bush, Remnick writes, “failed in almost every respect.” While he cannot be blamed for all the political miscalculations, “Bush’s faults of leadership and character were brought into high relief by the crisis. Suntanned and relaxed after a vacation so long that it would have shamed a French playboy, Bush reacted with fogged delinquency, as if he had been so lulled by his summer sojourn that he was not quite ready to acknowledge reality, let alone attempt to master it.”

It’s part of a five-story package that is more concise than the newsweeklies, yet summons an impressive number of powerful moments. Christine Wiltz writes of her survivor’s guilt, and then her flight from the city with her husband as looters take over. Dan Baum contributes two reports from inside the city, including one that evocatively captures one family’s desperate struggle to avoid the rising water in their home until it “push[es] them against the exposed points of roofing nails,” and the stepfather bashes a hole in the stifling attic’s roof big enough for them to squeeze outside — where they wait for days to be rescued. Finally, Nicholas Lemann, dean of the journalism school at Columbia and a native New Orleanian, acknowledges with a bleak realism the stark structural problems the city faced long before doomsday: “New Orleans is, and for a long time has been, the opposite of a city that works.”

On the conservative side of the spectrum, the editors of National Review, calling the storm’s aftermath “the latest front in the nation’s political/cultural war,” are already pushing for New Orleans to become a symbolic and literal background to the 2008 campaign for the White House. “No single step would go further to dramatize the GOP’s commitment to rebuilding New Orleans than announcing now that the party’s 2008 convention will be held in the recovering city,” an editorial suggests. “Such a move would signal the party’s confidence in the Big Easy’s renewal, and put it at the forefront of what should be similar commitments from private actors to do their part to help New Orleans come back.”

Such a gathering by the “Daddy party” (or “the party of competence,” as NR still quaintly calls it) hardly seems likely — but, then again, neither did the actions of many a prominent public official last week.

Edward B. Colby

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.