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What a Riot

The Bush administration's follies in New Orleans are so tragic they're comic.

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Someone will make a quick fortune publishing a joke book about the Katrina disaster. It will have a name like "Easy Does It: Drowning in Incompetence in New Orleans." Each page will be about a paragraph long. It'll be a bathroom book, enjoyed wherever there are still functioning bathrooms, and it will give various nonentities the immortality that is now their due.

Readers will sit with their pants down and remember that Mark Wills was the country singer President Bush twanged a guitar with as New Orleans disappeared. They'll chuckle over Michael Brown, the former commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association who got the job running the Federal Emergency Management Agency because he'd been the college roommate of the previous director, Joe Allbaugh, who got the job because he'd run George W. Bush's 2000 campaign and who said as he announced the downsizing of FEMA after two months on the job, "Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into . . . an oversized entitlement program."

They'll remember New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, who sent his cops off to Las Vegas for R & R while most of his city was still underwater. There'll be a picture of the 255 submerged school buses that could have carried thousands of New Orleans residents to safety, and another of Alaska's "bridge to nowhere" (from Ketchikan to an island 50 people live on), which was awarded almost five times as much money in the new federal budget as New Orleans's levee system.

They'll relive Bush's classic lines:

"Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

"I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."

"I believe that the great city of New Orleans will rise again and be a greater city of New Orleans. I believe the town where I used to come--from Houston, Texas, to enjoy myself, occasionally too much--will be that very same town, that it will be a better place to come to."

"Easy Does It" will point out that these words were spoken during Bush's first visit to New Orleans, when he didn't leave the airport.

Because fair is fair and everybody who's not a target is a consumer, "Easy Does It" will spare neither Republicans nor Democrats. But the Republicans will come off worse. Nobody outside Louisiana will care for long what the governor or the mayor did badly, but the blunders of the Bush White House will guarantee a vast international market. I know this because I went overseas the day the levees burst and followed the Katrina catastrophe in the International Herald-Tribune and in British papers, which the story dominated. It would be too easy to say that schadenfreude ruled. New Orleans is a place that Europe can genuinely mourn, especially anyone who ever spent a weekend there or owns a jazz collection, and there was an air of the today-Western-culture-is-a-little-bit-poorer blues to a lot of the writing.

But there was also an air of vindication. Bush was getting what he deserved. Not because he's been wrong about Iraq--Europeans see both sides of that war about as clearly as Americans do--but because he's been wrong about government.

Europeans tend to believe in government. If the pundits I read were a clue to how the continent thinks, most Europeans believe there's more to a well-functioning society than economic laws and Christian virtues. They believe it requires a competent civil service. And they recoil from the America they believe Bush epitomizes, an America that dismisses learning and experience but worships intuition, as if certain that it somehow, automatically, without knowing exactly how, will always do the right thing, when what actually happens time and again is that it is so big and rich and powerful that it does the wrong thing and suffers much less than smaller countries that are only bystanders. Well, New Orleans proved American government incompetent: it had denied history, it had ignored obvious warning signs, it had cut corners, it had put its faith in its own luck, and it had appointed misfits to key positions on the theory that a fool can hold down a government job as well as anyone else.

I came home to commentators arguing that the case being made against Bush is seriously out of scale. "We've descended into depraved finger-pointing," protested Dennis Byrne in Monday's Tribune, where Charles Krauthammer called Bush "late, slow and simply out of tune" but ranked him less responsible for New Orleans than Mayor Nagin, Governor Kathleen Blanco, and, of course, Michael Brown. "The author of this calamity," Krauthammer reminded us, "was, first and foremost, nature (or if you prefer, nature's God)."

Fair enough. But when calamity calls, it doesn't actually matter who the author was. It wouldn't matter if it had been Al Qaeda--except that Al Qaeda wouldn't have given New Orleans two or three days' warning. Congress and the public have shoveled new powers upon the White House in the last four years, and the deal was that the White House would use them to protect us. The Bush administration is now protesting that its hands were tied in New Orleans by an indecisive mayor and governor, but it had swaggered before the public as a crew that in a time of crisis could do and would do whatever it takes. New Orleans was a flood in a small city--a flood every-one could see coming--and the White House froze. Imagine if it had been a dirty bomb in a bigger city--let's say Chicago. Can anyone who has watched the White House flail and fumble over New Orleans believe for a second that the Department of Homeland Security has a serious plan to keep order and empty this city if a radioactive bomb goes off in the Loop, or that President Bush has meditated on such a disaster and will immediately take steps that meet the test of leadership?

Where could seven million Chicagoans find refuge, anyway? Is there a plan? Can there even be a plan? Does anyone have a clue?

New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen. But so are the cities sitting on fault lines along the west coast. So, thanks to terrorism, is every city everywhere. The media of America might want to let New Orleans inspire them to pose the question most papers have avoided: What if it happens here? In New Orleans, the various layers of government turned to blaming each other, not to mention the victims--whose supposed unique culture of violence made a descent into chaos swift and inevitable. Other cities are surely too civilized to behave so badly when everything falls apart. But for the sake of discussion their media need to entertain the possibility--what if they aren't?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Archer Prewitt.

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