Painting Katrina with a 9/11 Brush

President Bush gave a lunchtime speech before the Republican Jewish Coalition in Washington yesterday.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in a roundup of pre-Hurricane Rita preparations, focused on Bush’s comments on the government’s readiness for the new storm in the two paragraphs it devoted to the speech. On Fox News Channel last night, White House correspondent Carl Cameron said that “Mr. Bush implored Gulf resident to heed warnings and directives from local and state authorities,” then cut to a one-sentence shot of similar boilerplate from the president.

On “CNN Live Today,” the network carried a significant portion of Bush’s speech. We’ll cut to the relevant part:

You know something? I’ve been thinking a lot about how America has responded and it’s clear to me that Americans value human life and value every person as important.

And that stands in stark contrast, by the way, to the terrorists we have to deal with.

You see, we look at the destruction caused by Katrina and our hearts break. They’re the kind of people that look at Katrina and wish they had caused it.

We’re in a war against these people. It’s a war on terror. These are evil men who target the suffering. They killed 3,000 of our people on September the 11th, 2001. And they’ve continued to kill.

See, sometimes, we forget about the evil deeds of these people. …

They want to topple government. Just think Taliban and Afghanistan. That’s their vision. And we can’t let them do that.

Cutting away from the speech, host Daryn Kagan remarked, “President Bush talking a big chunk of time there about Hurricane Rita, encouraging those to get out of the way that might be in the path of Hurricane Rita. … But also talking about the recovery from Hurricane Katrina, President Bush saying the federal government will do its part. He also expects state, local and private organizations to do theirs, as well.”

Hel-lo? What did the Atlanta paper, Fox and CNN miss?

Did no one pick up on Bush, for the first time, equating the Katrina recovery effort, for which he has been faulted, with the “war on terror,” for which the public has largely given him good marks?

Actually, someone did. That would be the New York Times’ David Sanger, who spotted and drew attention to what his journalistic colleagues had not. Sanger’s story led off this way:

President Bush on Wednesday for the first time linked the American response to terrorism and its response to Hurricane Katrina, declaring that the United States is emerging a stronger nation from both challenges, and saying that terrorists look at the storm’s devastation ‘and wish they had caused it.’

Mr. Bush’s speech, at a luncheon for the Republican Jewish Coalition, appeared to be part of a White House strategy to restore the luster of strong leadership that Mr. Bush enjoyed after the Sept. 11 attacks, and that administration officials fear he has lost in the faltering response to the hurricane.

Sanger added later that “By suggesting for the first time that America’s enemies were pleased to see the devastation caused by the hurricane, [Bush] appeared to be linking the country’s natural and human challengers” and that “In weaving the themes, Mr. Bush said that just as the United States would not let an act of nature blow the nation off course, it would not let the acts of terrorists drive it out of Iraq.”

This is major news, and Sanger gets points for recognizing and then highlighting it. (The Boston Globe, in contrast, relegated the development to the last paragraph of a piece about Bush’s efforts to “get back on track” politically as Rita approaches.) It’s also tricky territory, but Sanger handled Bush’s striking comments with enough context so readers would not unthinkingly accept the purported connection between Katrina and terrorists.

The Bush administration has artfully constructed tenuous connections before in the war on terror. The public will be better served this time around if reporters point out with due diligence each time that it tries to link its faltering and much-criticized response in New Orleans to the struggle against terrorists which has so much public support.

Edward B. Colby

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.