“THE PEOPLE ARE BOILING WITH RAGE”

George W. Bush has made serious mistakes. Many Americans think they need a new president, not only blankets and food.

By Andrea Bohm

[This article published in: DIE ZEIT 37/2005 is translated fro the German on the World Wide Web,  http://zeus.zeit.de/text/2005/37/Bush.]


The catastrophe can hardly be grasped or comprehended in its extent. New Orleans, a unique city, was swallowed up. The number of dead goes into the thousands. Several hundred thousand people are refugees in their own land whose government asked the help of foreign countries. The US needs a new president in the opinion of many Americans along with blankets, emergency beds and food rations. If George W. Bush pushed the responsibility for the miserably organized emergency relief on others, “I must get cracking,” the democratic senator of Louisiana, Landrieu, said before a running camera. A threatened whipping by a member of Congress combined with a plunge in poll numbers is the temporary low in the president’s term in office.

In all fairness, many have culpability in the catastrophic disaster control. Bush demanded an evacuation but it could not be ordered. The city authority ordered it too late and was surprised that many slum dwellers had neither cars nor money to reach security. The superdome and the conference center in News Orleans were traps for those left behind – and a PR-disaster for the White House. The television teams were everywhere; the relief convoys were nowhere. Local politicians cried SOS; the leaders of the country seemed deaf and ignorant in the first crucial days. Dick Cheney relaxed in Wyoming and Condoleezza Rice was caught shopping on New York’s Fifth Avenue. George W. Bush broke off his vacation two days after the catastrophe and amazed the waiting journalists with the remark that no one expected the levees would break in New Orleans. In truth, the city had lived with this fear for decades.

With astonishingly incompetent slips, the president and his team promoted the image of a cold-hearted leadership squad faced with shocking misery – a misery that revealed more than the destructive power of nature. Hurricane Katrina had blown the problems in the face of George W. Bush that he wanted to be rid of with churches and caritas: “class, race and poverty.”

In the view of many Bush critics – including German chancellor Schroeder – the chaotic emergency relief in the hurricane area was also a consequence of a policy of state dismantling and deregulation. However the chaos in the flood was firstly the result of too much misguided state intervention. After the terror attack of September 22, 2002, the Bush administration created a super-department for homeland security. This mammoth bureaucracy also devoured the federal authority for disaster control since the bulk of the resources had to be combined for measures against terrorism. Washington reacted panic-stricken to an enemy named Katrina, not al-Qaida.

In the American capitol, presidential advisor Karl Rove pulls all the levers for damage control. Instead of gliding over the flood ed area in a low flight, the president now appears casual and personal in the refugee shelters – with a relief convoy in the background. An investigative commission under Bush’s direction should uncover the shortcomings of the disaster deployment. Politically controversial projects like tax relief for the rich were first covered up. When the news about the death of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist burst in the headlines about Katrina, Bush nominated the somewhat moderate John Roberts as his successor, not the archconservative judge Antonio Scalia. The president signaled to the opposition: I am wounded and I know it.

Conciliatory personnel decisions are hardly enough to stem the political consequences of hurricane Katrina. Unlike after September 11, 2001, Bush cannot redirect the collective shock this time in readiness to struggle against an external enemy. Quite the contrary, the annoyance over the Iraq war that was growing in the last months anyway changed abruptly after hurricane Katrina into open rage. Over a third of the National Guard of Louisiana is presently stationed in Iraq – in actions for which national guardant are not trained and which fewer and fewer Americans think can be won. The governor of Louisiana lacked these troops for disaster relief.

Even more, hurricane Katrina shattered the self-image of a nation that long only say itself as a helper, avenger and protector of the weak and exporter of democracy, prosperity and order. Now it has to ask for blankets and beds. Italy sends transport planes and Germany technical relief organizations. Iran offered oil shipments. Fidel Castro – always a replacement candidate for the “axis of evil” – will send medicines. “Who are we,” the columnist Maureen Dowd asked in the New York Times, “if we aren’t concerned about our own people?”

This shock goes deeper than September 11, 2001. At that time the picture of a united America was drawn that forgot – even if in a latent state of war – all barriers and oppositions and waved the flag. In September 2005 furious residents of New Orleans held the extended middle finger in the camera and politicians insulted each other. Soldiers shot at looters and treated many of the black homeless more as insurgents than as flood victims. When the rapper Kanye West deviated from his text at a benefit TV-concert last Friday and declared, “George Bush doesn’t care about blacks,” the NBC television station turned off his microphone. Nevertheless the debate over poverty and racism is in full swing: on the street, on the websites of bloggers and in the columns of columnists. Maureen Dowd titled her column “United States of Shame.” “Mr. President, we are furious,” exclaimed an editorial of the Times-Picayune from New Orleans.

Even in the conservative camp, people wait for the “storm after the storm.” “We are not at the point where something crashes. We are at the point where something bursts,” writes the columnist David Brooks. “The people are boiling with rage and wont take it any longer.”

Brooks refers to 1927 when the “great flood of the Mississippi” devastated a vast region and made 700,000 people homeless including 330,000 African-Americans. At that time the responsible politicians let the residential areas of the poor flood to save the city. African-Americans were driven together to build dams. Thousands of blacks and whites – half refugees and half prisoners – were freighted into “relief camps.” The president at that time, Calvin Coolidge, saw his task as directing “the sympathy of the nation to the fate of the victims” and offering generous donations. The victims roared and elected a leftwing populist named Huey Long as governor a year later. Long carried out radical reforms to combat poverty. He also sent off the National Guard – to march on the oil fields of Standard Oil because the company did not want to pay the new tax financing school supplies. The “great flood” with its political consequences in Louisiana was one of the events that prepared the way for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

What is the role of the state here? Rebuilding New Orleans – with secure levees, a solid infrastructure and socially mixed residential areas – would be a project of Rooseveltian proportions. Netter protection of American coasts from such disasters in the future requires public investments, international cooperation in protection of the atmosphere and guidelines in developing coastal beaches. It necessitates ending tax gifts to the super-rich and the insight that “homeland security” goes beyond the struggle against terrorism. In other words, it requires a George Bush who adopts a few lines from that president whose political inheritance the Republican Party has tried to destroy with great verve for five years. No one can imagine now whether and how this will happen.