Bush’s Suspicion of Rhetoric Led to His Lame Response

Tons and acres of murky filth rushed in a flood surge and still lingers weeks later. And that is just the punditry on Hurricane Katrina. How can we backbite and quibble when thousands upon thousands are homeless, ruined, sick, dying and dead? Maybe we do it because so many of those who are paid to predict, cope and lead failed.

The civil government of New Orleans and Louisiana would disgrace a community board, a political club or an op-ed page. Twenty percent of New Orleans’ not-finest simply walked off their jobs; even the offer of R&R in Las Vegas couldn’t lure them back. The late Jack Maple, one of the wizards of the NYPD in the Giuliani/Bratton years, consulted with the NOPD; evidently, its shortcomings were too much for him.

But who can blame the cops when the mayor was a dunghill rooster and the governor a weeping wreck? Let this be a lesson to all voters. Politics, Tip O’Neill said, is local; it is propelled by the greed and grievances of minorities, who are empowered by the indifference of everyone else. But in an age of disaster, the fate you decide with your vote may be your own. Though Katrina was slipped us by nature, its lessons must be interesting to our enemies. Somewhere in Pakistan, Osama bin Laden is kicking himself over the waste of martyr-murderers in Iraq, when all he needed to do to kill more infidels than the whole war so far was plant a few bombs on the levees.

One reason New York did as well as it did on 9/11 was that Mayor Giuliani saw it coming. Several paragraphs of his first inaugural speech in January 1994 were, as Fred Siegel points out in Prince of the City, devoted to the first World Trade Center bombing the year before. In 2001, there was a plan in place. It wasn’t perfect: The initial command center was in the World Trade Center itself. But there was something to work with. It also helped that Mr. Giuliani was a maniacal control freak. Look well at your local candidates: Which one seems as if he might be able to do more than he expects he will have to?

The burdens are not a city’s or a state’s alone. The federal government exists to be the savior of last resort, and maybe of first resort. We must not be mesmerized by the language of the law. Federalism is not meant to be a suicide pact. There is a fundamental law centuries older than the Constitution, or any of our statutes: Salus populi suprema lex—the safety of the people is the supreme law (Cicero). In some situations, leaders must invoke it, then submit themselves to the lawmakers afterwards for justification or reproof. But we don’t have to be so sweeping; our written Constitution has enough strength and flexibility to it. One of the goals listed in the Preamble is ensuring domestic tranquility. When a below-sea-level state in the path of an expected Category 5 storm freezes up, or when thugs are preying on the survivors and the rescuers, the President, in whom “the executive power” is vested, may act.

That presumes he has capable assistants and knows what to do himself. Michael (Brownie) Brown, director of FEMA, finally did the right thing by quitting. A 9-year-old girl would know to ask an adult for help. This was beyond Mr. Brown’s power, along with everything else. Early in the disaster, my colleague Jonah Goldberg asked the question that will—and should—be posed repeatedly to the administration: If the levees had in fact been destroyed by terrorists, would the federal government’s response have been any different, and why? The answer to the first half of the question is clearly no, which means that the second question must be: Why not?

We are left with President Bush’s leadership style, which we have seen before. In the first days of Katrina, he did what he did in the first days after 9/11, which was not much, and he did it in the same way, which was badly. George W. Bush has a fatal suspicion of rhetoric. I think the sources may be as early as his early life, when brother Jeb was the glib, favored one. The suspicion no doubt grew at Yale in the 60’s, when the son of a G.O.P. pol was surrounded by the spoutings of tenured radicals. Seeking a Presidential nomination in a field that included Alan Keyes would turn anyone against rhetoric. Mr. Bush’s natural disposition is to dismiss rhetoric as bullshit.

But it isn’t always. Sometimes it catalyzes; at best, it inspires. At worst, it tells people how bad things are. Mr. Giuliani did all three after 9/11. If you can’t speak, act. Gesture is also a form of speech. Go to your desk. The news will show the chopper landing on the White House lawn. Look serious.

Rhetoric has its downside. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are excellent off-the-cuff speakers and emoters. But they are also oily and insincere. Mr. Giuliani’s feel for the limelight gave us his finest hour; it also gave us weirdo drag acts. Every antidote has its poison.

But we live in the age of the instantaneous. When the telegraph was invented, some journalist commented, “There is no elsewhere—everything is here.” Everything is also now. Fox and CNN will be out in the dreck, shouting over the elements and asking when the cavalry will arrive, maybe unfairly. Anyone who wishes to lead these days has to be able to supply an answer, or an alternative picture. Successful leaders understand the media of their time. That’s why Madison and Hamilton toiled at Federalist papers, why Lincoln sat for Mathew Brady, why Churchill and Roosevelt spoke over the radio. If you deeply dislike that fact, you must ask yourself why you left Crawford in the first place.

I have admired George W. Bush for many reasons, and do still. If he is now a lame duck, it is by his own hand.

Bush’s Suspicion of Rhetoric Led to His Lame Response