A Heck of a Job: a Compassionate President, With a Bird's-eye View

The New York Times, Aug. 4, 2007: President Bush got a bird's-eye view Saturday of what remained of a highway bridge that collapsed last Wednesday over the Mississippi River, and planned to later tour the site on foot . . . "[T]he people there are decent and resilient, and they will get through these painful hours."

The New York Times, Aug. 5, 2007: Mr. Bush took a 10-minute helicopter tour of the wreckage, where he could see the remains of a school bus, a truck and other vehicles . . . '' Our message to the Twin Cities is we want to get this bridge rebuilt as quick as possible,'' the president said.

[Now, imagine if Bush handled the disaster in Minneapolis in the same way he handled Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath of that tragedy . . . ]

Six Months Later: President Bush flew over the Twin Cities in Air Force One and, looking down from 20,000 feet, said the bridge reconstruction looked "pretty good," but was probably "doubly good on the ground." His flyover came half a year after Bush praised federal officials for doing a "heck of a job" in responding to the collapse, and he pledged "one of the largest bridge reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen."

However, the billions in federal aid that Bush promised to rebuild the bridge have not materialized, many millions of it squandered by fraud, mismanagement, and waste. Minnesotans are feeling increasingly frustrated that cleanup of the I-35W bridge collapse continues at a snail's pace. Rescue workers recently found yet another victim.

Highways around Minneapolis and St. Paul have remained congested, and some angry residents have begun to move away. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided loaner cars, dubbed "FEMA cars," to those who lost their vehicles in the collapse and were unable to settle insurance claims or obtain federal loans for new cars.

Six Months Later: On the one-year anniversary of the Minneapolis bridge collapse, President Bush hovered for four-and-a-half minutes above rush-hour traffic in his presidential helicopter, Marine One, and blamed the Democrat-controlled Congress for it's failure to repair the I-35W bridge. Later in the day, he defended his decision to veto a 5-cent gas tax that would have paid for replacing the bridge and repairing other aging bridges across the nation, claiming that the escalating, five-year-old, $500-billion war in Iraq was a higher priority. He said a gas tax would "affect economic growth."

Minnesota's Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty, after twice vetoing a state gas tax that would have paid for needed highway infrastructure upgrades, said he was now open to the idea. President Bush immediately fired the governor. When Bush learned that Navy divers were still working on the bridge, he ordered them sent to Iraq. He vowed to soon send "armies of compassion" to Minneapolis -- as long as the state paid the tab.

Meanwhile, many Minneapolis residents are still driving around in their "FEMA cars"; school enrollment is at it's lowest point in half a century; crime has reached record levels; hospitals have closed and businesses have relocated.

Minneapolis' population is now half what it was before the bridge collapse.

A Month Later: Bound for Crawford, for his monthlong summer vacation, President Bush ordered Air Force One to make a detour and fly over New Orleans, the city where many displaced Minneapolis residents have relocated, after their city collapsed into chaos. Looking down on the Big Easy, finally rejuvenated three years after Katrina, thanks to the influx of Midwesterners, Bush declared that Minnesota was too cold anyway and that the relocation to New Orleans was "working very well for them."

Five Months Later, Jan 20, 2009: On his last day as President, having survived the threat of impeachment that has hovered over his final year in office, George Bush strode stoically across the White House lawn, climbed the steps to Marine One, turned around a flashed two peace signs to the staff gathered on the lawn, then disappeared inside the helicopter. Inside awaited three of his former colleagues -- Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and Donald Rumsfeld. As the helicopter door closed, Rove approached and gave Bush a going-away present, a T-shirt that read, "It's not my fault."

The president busted out laughing as they ascended above Washington.

A Week Later: A poll has found that Americans believe George W. Bush was the least compassionate of the nation's forty-three presidents, a designation largely blamed on Bush's ineffective response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Among the questions pollsters asked were, "Was Hurricane Katrina President Bush's fault?" and "Was the Minneapolis bridge collapse of 2007 President Bush's fault?" The nearly unanimous responses to those questions was "no." However, when asked whether Bush did enough to react to those disasters, eight of ten Americans said "no."

The poll found that, among expectations of the executive office, Americans ranked as "very high" that presidents at least make an attempt to care about the victims of disasters. Lyndon Johnson received high marks for visiting the Lower Ninth Ward and victims in shelters a day after Hurricane Betsy ravaged New Orleans. ("I put aside all the problems on my desk to come to Louisiana as soon as I could," Johnson said.)

But pollsters found that, despite gaining the White House with the promise of "compassionate conservatism," Bush irreparably damaged his presidency by doing far too little at the federal level to keep the nation's attention focused on repairing and rebuilding New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. [He left office with the lowest approval rating in the history of the presidency, roughly 5 percent.]

Three days after Katrina, Bush flew over New Orleans on his return from a monthlong vacation. Peering out the small Air Force One window, he said “it’s got to be doubly devastating on the ground.” Bush's flyover struck many as a wildly insufficient gesture, as if he didn't want to get his feet wet, or his hands dirty with the reality of the suffering, by actually visiting New Orleans, the way he visited New York so soon after the 9-11 attacks, a visit that briefly served as the defining moment of his presidency.

The more lasting defining moment of his administration came when Bush finally did visit New Orleans and praised FEMA director Michael Brown for doing "a heck of a job" in his response to Katrina. Two weeks later, Bush returned for a prime-time event on Jackson Square to pledge "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen." Beneath the floodlights, Bush said, "[T]onight I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.'' But a year later, many millions in federal aid were found to have been wasted, and by the storm's second anniversary nearly 50,000 families were still living in FEMA trailers.

The poll found that it didn't help Bush's "compassion index" when his mother, during a visit with Katrina victims at Houston's Astrodome, said "many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this -- this is working very well for them.'' [Nor did it help when Bush told wounded soldiers at an Army hospital in San Antonio about his own boo-boo: “I have an injury myself -- not here at the hospital, but in combat with a cedar. I eventually won. The cedar gave me a little scratch. As a matter of fact, the colonel asked if I needed first aid when she first saw me. I was able to avoid any major surgical operations here, but thanks for your compassion, colonel.'']

Of course, Bush wasn't alone among compassion-less conservatives in stoking America's change-the-channel attitude toward New Orleans. In a similar poll titled "Compassion in the Congress," former House Speaker Dennis Hastert scored low marks for his post-Katrina suggestion that damaged neighborhoods could simply be bulldozed, and Louisiana Congressman Richard Baker scored poorly for his claim that Katrina had "finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did it."

Some Americans, the poll found, now believe that the administration's plan was not to rebuild New Orleans, a sentiment that echoes what Douglas Brinkley, the Tulane University historian and author of ''The Great Deluge,'' told the New York Times in 2006: that the Bush strategy was "deliberate inaction," with the goal being a smaller, less ethnic, more Republican-friendly city -- a whiter New Orleans. Nearly 70 percent African-American before Katrina, New Orleans is less than half African-American today.

''The last blue state in the Old South is turning into a red state,'' Brinkley said.

Former president Bush, who recently announced plans to return to the corporate world -- as head of his former vice president's old firm, Halliburton -- could not be reached for comment. A spokesman for the ex-president said Mr. Bush doesn't believe in polls and that he "cares about Americans who care about him."

Copyright © 2007 Neal Thompson

Author
Neal Thompson is a veteran journalist who has worked for the Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer, and St. Petersburg Times, and whose magazine stories have appeared in Outside, Esquire, Backpacker, Men's Health, and The Washington Post Magazine. He is the author of two critically acclaimed books, Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard, America's First Spaceman and Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels and the Birth of NASCAR. Thompson and his family live in the mountains outside Asheville, North Carolina.

Author: Neal Thompson

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