Three cheers for Maureen Dowd for exposing the sham of President’ Bush's Jackson Square speech to the nation announcing his "recovery plan" for New Orleans, and a big fat raspberry for the electronic media--including Dowd’s own New York Times--for failing to mention it in their "hard-news" coverage of the speech.


I knew it as soon as I saw the color-coordinated president standing there on screen in front of a beautifully lit cathedral façade in a city that was still all dark: this was a made-for-TV fake. But Dowd nailed it.


For those who missed it, Bush, dressed in a pressed, blue, open-collar dress shirt (certainly not "badly-tailored" this time as it allegedly was during the debates!), was backed by a professionally blue-light-bathed St. Louis Cathedral. What Dowd pointed out in her 9/17 column, was that the lighting was flown in by the White House advance team, along with generators (most of New Orleans is still under water and without power). To spare the American public from seeing the depressingly darkened ghost town of the surrounding mostly empty French Quarter, the Bush advance team also flew in military camouflage netting, which was strung up behind the president to block out all buildings but the cathedral.


As Dowd pointed out, the setting, on TV screens, resembled nothing so much as the Disney Sleeping Beauty Castle--an appropriate metaphor for the whole Bush presidency, with its focus on imagery, stagecraft and hocus-pocus.


What boggles the mind is how our national media have become so inured to this kind of manipulation that most reporters don't even bother to mention it--or if they do, most editors cut it, considering it to be either non-news or evidence of bias. Viewers and readers are left in the dark about the way they are being deceived by the lighting.


Really, how hard would it have been for a print reporter, writing about the speech, to mention the Herculean effort that went into setting up the stage for the president's address? (The Times did mention the charade in a reporters notebook filed by White House scribe Elisabeth Bumiller, but the information should have appeared in the page-one hard-news report on the address.) How hard would it have been for a TV reporter to have the camera crew cut to some of the scenes of blacked-out buildings behind the netting, or to the generators roaring away to provide the artful backlighting? After all, given the incredible ineptness and unconscionable callousness displayed by the White House in getting rescuers to the scene of the flood, it is surely relevant to show how efficient the same White House's PR operation can be at getting crucial equipment like lights and generators into the battered city when it's a matter not of lives, but of the president's image.


At this point, I'd be interested in hearing what happened to those generators. Having schlepped them all the way into the ravaged city, did the White House donate them to the relief effort, or did they just pack them up and fly them out again, the way they did with the fake "relief supplies" that were set up for a staged earlier visit by the president to flood victims in Mississippi (a bit of information that was also left out of American coverage but reported by a German TV reporter)?


My own guess is that this fakery is all of a piece with a much larger sham. Just as the White House is faking the backdrops in the president's public appearances, most of his major public initiatives are also just smoke and mirrors. No Child Left Behind was a classic of the genre, as were early promises of federal aid to New York City after 9-11.


It should come as no surprise when the latest promises for major federal support for the rebuilding of New Orleans turn out to be hollow, too.


After all, having thoroughly blown the budget on the $300-billion-and-counting Iraq War, the president really has no money to offer. He's already said that there will be no rescinding of the mammoth tax giveaways to the rich and corporations to fund the rebuilding program, which could cost as much as $200 billion. In fact, he's still pushing for more tax cuts. And much of the money for rebuilding the drowned city, the president says, will have to come from cuts in other federal programs (read poverty programs), which means that what one hand gives to New Orleans--one of the poorest cities in America--will be taken away from its residents by the other. Note, for example, a planned 13-percent increase in Medicare outlays by individual recipients.


What Dowd showed us in her excellent column was a Potemkin president. What the president announced in his carefully staged address from New Orleans was a Potemkin recovery program.


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