W.’s Hurricane

Maybe in a month or two, after the pestilential floodwaters are pumped back into Lake Pontchartrain, all the corpses are carried away, and New Orleanians begin moving back home, the national sense of revulsion and anger and shame will have receded. Maybe by Columbus Day or Thanksgiving, something close to a majority of Americans will once again think that the Bush administration, all told, is doing a pretty darned good job.

But I don’t think so. As far as the public’s trust in George Bush goes, I think Katrina has changed everything.

The Republicans, after all, are supposed to be the competent ones, the coolly efficient daddies instead of the confused, softhearted mommies, the executives who get things done while the Democrats just fret and whine and coddle. Since 9/11 especially, the Republican reputation for no-nonsense, kick-ass reliability is what puts all national Democrats at a political disadvantage; it’s what got Bush reelected.

For the past two years, however, the war in Iraq—and the administration’s absolute unwillingness to admit error or change strategy or send more troops, like the dad who shouts at mom and refuses to stop the car to ask directions when he’s lost—has been gradually eroding that central premise of the Republican brand. But the value-neutral question of the administration’s competence concerning Iraq is muddied by and subordinated to the endlessly arguable geopolitical and moral debates. The people who supported the invasion are disinclined to admit just how disastrously the occupation has been executed, and the criticism of the bungling by people who opposed the war from the start seems like disingenuous I-told-you-so gloating. So the passionate, overriding argument has been about whether invading was right or wrong, not how effectively the war has been prosecuted.

But for practical-minded Americans, the federal government’s mishandling of the Katrina catastrophe is the converse. It’s a pure test of governmental competence. The associated ideological argument—whether or not the government’s response would have been quicker and surer if the victims had been whiter—is an ugly, unanswerable secondary issue whose plausibility makes the incompetence seem only more awful and embarrassing.

Unlike with Iraq, there’s no foreign evildoer or weak-kneed liberal political opponent onto whom the public’s rage can be off-loaded. (Perhaps an all-powerful God could be blamed for Katrina? Perhaps not.) In the past when it has been politically threatened, this administration has lucked or brilliantly spun its way out of trouble. But that magic was starting to fade even before Katrina: According to every major national opinion poll during August, an absolute majority of Americans disapproved of Bush. And since the hurricane, his PR performance has been virtually Kerry-esque—flat-footed, tone-deaf, defensive—as egregious and ineffective in its fashion as the civil-defense failures on the ground.

It took him two days after the hurricane hit to decide he’d better end his monthlong vacation early—and his first photo op was the flyby at 2,500 feet, staring down helplessly at New Orleans from Air Force One. The next day, his Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff, on “All Things Considered,” said that he had “not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who don’t have food and water,” and dismissed an NPR reporter’s firsthand account as “a rumor or … someone’s anecdotal version.” And the day after that, Bush flew back to the region to praise his FEMA director, Michael Brown (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”), and to use his speech in New Orleans as an opportunity to snigger about his own hard-partying younger days in the Big Easy.

Now, in the minds of the great middle third of the public, the bumbling, dissembling responses to Katrina and to the Iraq insurgency will start to seem all of a piece. The dots will be connected, fairly as well as unfairly, as a harsh new picture emerges.

When ordinary Americans hear their secretary of Homeland Security denying the very debacle they’re hearing and seeing reported in real time—our 2005 domestic version of the Iraqi minister of Information’s performance in 2003—more of them will be disinclined to believe what administration officials are telling them about Iraq. If the National Guard and Army were not stretched so thin overseas, people are saying, maybe the helicopters and troops and food and water could have gotten to New Orleans faster and in greater numbers. The price of gasoline had already doubled since we invaded Iraq, and now Katrina is pushing it past $3 a gallon. Patriotic citizens will find it harder to make their hopeful, fingers-crossed excuses for the difficulties in Iraq. A lot of people will have the half-conscious thought: This president is real quick to kill people, but slow to save them. And many more will say, If he can’t deal properly with the mess down on the Gulf Coast, no wonder he can’t deal with the mess in the Persian Gulf, and vice versa. Politically, the mismanagement of Katrina and the mismanagement of the war in Iraq have negative synergy.

To people in this Bush-hating metropolis, the damage to George Bush amounts to a silver lining of the hurricane. For the past few years, it has been galling how he and the Republicans have exploited 9/11—the attack on our city, the murder of our citizens—for partisan purposes. So forgive us a moment of private, perverse pleasure in the manifest failure of the administration’s post-9/11 reorganization: If FEMA had not been subsumed into the new Department of Homeland Security two years ago, everyone agrees, it would have coped much better with Katrina.

The nightmarishness in the South has also made New Yorkers realize how fortunate we were four years ago. Our devastation was limited to .025 of this city’s 321 square miles; only those people living in the immediate vicinity were evacuated; no homes were destroyed; our mayor rose to the occasion; our firefighters and cops performed heroically (instead of resigning or going AWOL, as hundreds did in New Orleans); order and community were exquisitely maintained.

My family’s brief, slightly hysterical consideration of abandoning New York City now looks perfectly ironic: We thought we would relocate to New Orleans, and even coveted a particular house (with a swimming pool) in the Garden District. Instead of moving, we decided to take our chances and continue to live in the terrorists’ crosshairs because this is our home and we like it here, just as New Orleanians will now have to decide whether to risk moving back to their singular, vulnerable, precarious city.

It does seem, at least for the moment, that Katrina has reshaped our national politics. Of course, we were all absolutely certain four years ago of one thing: 9/11 had changed everything. And as we begin the fifth year since the attacks, I find it bizarre—comforting in some ways, but deeply disheartening in most others—how little the important things have changed.

Sure, there are soldiers with M-16s posted at Grand Central and cops searching every thousandth bag on the subways, and at JFK we have to take off our shoes. There is the enormous vacant lot between Church and West Streets (as there was when I was a kid). We are fighting a big, costly, and very possibly doomed counterinsurgency overseas (as we were when I was a kid). And for New Yorkers now, every sunny, breezy September day reminds us, at least fleetingly, of that morning; the weather has a new subtext. Almost everything else, though, has reverted to status quo ante.

To the degree that the security and intelligence agencies were unable to protect us on 9/11, it was due in some large measure to their bureaucratic inertia and infighting; the new federal agency in charge of protecting us, the Department of Homeland Security, failed in Louisiana in some large measure because of its bureaucratic inertia and infighting.

The age of irony did not end on 9/11, as it turned out; rather, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show have enriched and deepened and extended it.

Now, as then, we have an unbeatable liberal Republican mayor. And Katrina will probably make Bloomberg’s reelection even more of a sure thing: As New York voters contemplate some equivalent future local catastrophe, how many will prefer imagining a Mayor Ferrer or Fields or Miller or Weiner in command?

We have the same ineffectual Republican governor, merely lame then, now a lame duck. (His new dream—winning the Republicans’ 2008 presidential nomination—is one that every Democrat should hope he achieves.) And we have the same unfortunate Republican president, always a plainly insecure man professing perfect confidence, a discordant combination of underlying nervousness and surface faith that seems unchanged—but much more disturbing—since 9/11.

After the brief, strange, beautiful period of local, national, and international unity, any sense of common cause has long since evaporated. In New York, our leaders have badly fouled up the reimagining and reconstruction of ground zero. A familiar, dispiriting, hey-what-can-you-do? paralysis has overtaken the project like a toxic fog. We had a pair of absurdly tall buildings before, icons that inspired terrorists, not us; the politicians’ and planners’ desperate, wishful centerpiece for the new vision is simply to build another gigantic, unlikable building, but even taller this time.

The politics of victimhood are as rife as ever. Before 9/11 this tended to be a mau-mauing left-wing specialty, and Jesse Jackson’s inevitable appearance last week in front of the TV cameras in New Orleans revived the tradition. But in New York it’s the demagogic right now playing the victim card most extravagantly. For the proposed Freedom Center museum at ground zero, Pataki, the tabloids, the firefighters union, and some of the family members of the dead insist that our sensibilities are too fragile to withstand a thoughtful exploration of the fitful history of liberty and justice. It seems they want instead to reduce the American idea and respect for the victims (the actual heroes as well as the merely unfortunate majority) to a kind of one-note poor-wonderful-us jingoism.

Our national discourse is still dominated, now as then, by a loathsome mixture of ideological reflex and cynicism. The carnage and prospect of civil war in Iraq may feel like good news to some on the left, but even more profoundly corrosive is the administration’s unspoken political dependence on our fears of terrorist carnage in America. Under Bush, the Republicans are now deeply invested in fear itself, which has been the party’s successful default posture—concerning communists, then blacks, then hippies and radicals, now gays and, of course, Muslim terrorists—since World War II. If the national threat level is raised to orange this fall, I will be highly skeptical, finally inclined to agree with people who consider the system nothing but a crude political tool.

Four years ago, the U.S. had no meaningful strategy to reduce our dependence on foreign energy. And—unfathomably, tragically—we still don’t. We still import between a fifth and a quarter of our oil from the Persian Gulf; the higher that figure, the greater our need for influence and control in the region; and the greater our need for influence and control, the greater our likelihood of being attacked by Islamic terrorists and feeling obliged to invade countries like Iraq and Iran. After 9/11, Bush had the political capital to enact a visionary new energy policy devoted to weaning us off Arab Extra Light crude and Basra Blend; he might have raised the federal gasoline tax dramatically, required much higher minimum gas mileage for all cars, and funded hydrogen-energy development at Manhattan Project (or Iraqi war, or Katrina recovery) levels. Instead he (and Congress) did almost nothing.

September 11 did not change everything, as we’d expected and feared and hoped. Too many people, the president most prominently, apparently decided real change would be too unpleasant and inconvenient, that demanding one-for-all sacrifice of anyone but soldiers and Marines was out of the question. Because if people really changed—if we had radically revised our national energy policy, or built low-rise buildings at ground zero instead of the Freedom Tower—then the terrorists would win. If the attacks four years ago were a wake-up call, as the other 9/11 cliché has it, it seems we’re still in that dazed, dithery, half-asleep, half-awake state. Just maybe, Katrina is another wake-up call, the one that finally gets us up and out of bed and down to business.

W.’s Hurricane