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Hard Times & Political Theatre of the Absurd

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President Coolidge came down in a railroad train
With a little fat man with a note-pad in his hand.
The President say, “Little fat man isn’t it a shame
What the river has done to this poor cracker’s land?”

— Randy Newman, “Louisianna, 1927”

I sat in the Hard Times Cafe Friday, eating a chilli dog, listening to Johnny Cash on the juke box and watching live coverage of the Katrina aftermath on one of the cable news channels.

It was right after President Bush finally made it to the Gulf Coast — five long, painful days after Katrina’s visit. I watched on TV as the first National Guard convoys rolled in. Giant trucks, in water up to their windshields, moving slowly and cautiously through the mix of Mississippi, sewage, and toxic chemicals.

They rolled toward the Convention Center where thousands of people had been trapped for days, surrounded by the tide that kept this convoy to a crawl.

I wondered about the timing. But then I’m cynical.

I wondered how thousands of people, trapped by this toxic tide were finally getting help, just minutes after President Bush flew overhead. How people had begged for help, demanded help for five days — then President Bush shows up. Five days after the hurricane, the President declared that the response was slow. Suddenly things get snapping.

It would have been great political theatre — if so many Americans weren’t tired of the show.

History Fails to Repeat Itself

President Bush will probably always be remembered as the President with the bullhorn (right) — standing in the rubble of 9/11, shakily speaking to firefighters at “Ground Zero” and finding his voice as he declared “I hear you” and promising “the whole world will hear you.”

That, too, was political theatre — though it was improvisation. It was unexpected, it just happened. And the thing about improv — you can tell when it’s rehearsed. That’s what the Gulf coast photo ops looked like.

And for the President’s performance, the week was a theatre of the absurd.

Instead of firemen, the President’s supporting cast on the Gulf Coast was the Coast Guard. Helicopters that had been rescuing stranded people were grounded, crews who’d been saving lives were lined up at parade rest to provide a backdrop for politicians. Lifesaving equipment and manpower reduced to mere props for politicians and the TV cameras — while Americans waited for help.

Showtime for the President

President Bush was at a country music concert (left, AP photo), somehow linked to VJ-Day remembrances, while Katrina killed Americans on the Gulf coast.

That was Monday.

By Tuesday, Americans were ready for the response. We’re quick like that. Some call it “a society of instant gratification.” Others call it “the American way.”

Help never came.

Americans were saying on Tuesday what it took President Bush until Friday to say — that the response was too slow.

That’s three days.

Oddly, the same amount of time it takes to run a really accurate benchmark poll. Something the White House likely did to guage Americans’ opinion of how the Katrina aftermath was handled. It wasn’t like they were doing anything else.

The Poll-Driven President

We don’t know what the White House polls showed — probably pretty close to what the what the public ones did.

On Thursday morning, Taegan Goddard posted results of public polling at PoliticalWire.com:

A new Survey USA tracking poll finds that 59% of Americans say the federal government “is not doing enough to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina,” up from 50% just 24 hours ago. Other findings:

  • 75% of Americans today say that local officials are unprepared to meet the challenge that is before them. This is up 14 points, from 61%, in the past 24 hours.
  • 34% of Americans today say the government’s response to the hurricane has been surprisingly disorganized, up 14 points in 24 hours.
  • 31% of Americans today say the city of New Orleans should not be rebuilt, up 7 points in the past 24 hours.

I’ve followed lots of polls and been in on a lot of photo ops — both as a reporter and a political manager. I lost count of how many sometime in the Reagan administration.

From my experience — and from this data — handlers could craft a photo op where the President appears to come to the rescue, like the calvary arriving at the nick of time, whipping the slow response into shape.

Suddenly, the convoys roll in as the President circles overhead in Marine One (left).

In this case it was like the calvary arriving four days after the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Custer could have predicted the next poll numbers.

On Friday evening, Mr Goddard had an update showing the politicians were in even bigger trouble:

The latest Survey USA tracking poll shows that 68% of Americans now think the government isn’t doing enough to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. This is up dramatically from yesterday’s tracking poll.In addition, the majority (53%) do not approve of President Bush’s response to the tradegy; only 40% approve.

The Gulf Coast photo ops were not kind to President Bush. This was not the man with the bullhorn saying, “I hear you” and promising the “whole world will hear you.”

Here he was merely echoing what Americans had been saying for four days — the response was too slow. President Bush’s response was too slow. And he didn’t hear us this time. He didn’t hear us for four days.

[Crossposted at Watching Washington]
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About Terry Turner

  • Great piece, Terry. That’s what the Oval Office has been about since the days of Ronald Reagan. It’s all about public perception, opinion polls and sound bytes. The problem is that President Reagan knew what he was doing and was excellent at his craft. Bush the First was inept in that regard but overall I think he was good-intentioned. Bill Clinton was a master but the conservative hatred for him was so deep that it clouded his entire Administration. And then there is George W. Bush. His handlers won’t let him do anything without analyzing the potential for photo opportunities. Stand on rubble, Mr. President, use a bull horn. Put on a flight suit, land on an aircraft carrier and declare: “Mission Accomplished.” Speak from a podium in front of patriotic military families and tug at the heart strings of America. Hug a grief stricken black girl in Mississippi and show concern. Pardon my cynicism; it’s been a rough ride.

    This morning I am convinced now more than ever that Americans lowered their expectations of the Presidency after Bill Clinton left office. We’ve cut G.W. Bush a lot of slack because we really didn’t hold him to a Presidential standard. Like I said, we lowered our expectations. We got what we paid for. We didn’t expect much and we didn’t get it. The sad thing is that I feel partly responsible. Had we not worked so hard to get Ronald Reagan elected in 1980 and 1984 where would we be today? Would George W. Bush have been able to rise into the political spotlight? As I think back to the days of the 1980 campaign I remember how proud I was to support a man of clarity and character. I had faith in Ronald Reagan because he was a man of principle who revered the office he sought. Some may disagree but most of us had high expectations and we were not disappointed. The man who inherited the Reagan legacy is a complete insult to all of those who dared to dream of that “city on a hill.” Ronnie, wherever you are, put in a good word for us with the Almighty.

  • Ronnie, wherever you are, put in a good word for us with the Almighty.

    I don’t know if the pits of hell have a direct connection with heaven.

  • Aw, c’mon, Steve. And yeah even the pits of Hell have a connection to the Almighty. Don’t you remember that Lucifer was the most loved of the Angels? I guess God and Satan had a real love-hate relationship. Typical queens. Pardon me while I put on my sacramental flak jacket.

  • actually, I don’t believe in a heaven/hell concept, although I do think that Reagan’s inaction during our communities crisis, cost the lives of thousands. Perhaps Bush was just trying to emulate his hero over the last few days?

  • I don’t believe in the H/H concept either, Steve. But accusing God and Satan of having a love-hate relationship is just too delicious for words. Saying something like that may cause Jerry Falwell to have an aneurism.

    I totally understand your disdain for President Reagan. There are many policies he had which I didn’t agree with. But all of that aside, I loved the man. I knew where he was coming from and I felt safe under his leadership. Therein lies the major difference. We haven’t had a leader since Ronald Reagan who we could disagree with and still feel secure. During his Presidency there remained an air of civility in Washington and I miss that with all my heart and soul.

  • eddie fletcher

    this is the president that america wanted.the ones that voted for him should stand behind him.you remember what they called a war hero(flip flopper)well his supporters are flip flopping.so all you foolish people who put him in power should not bitch and moan now.you people supported his decision to invade iraq and kill our soldiers and the poor women,men and children of iraq.you people never questioned his reasoning.never asked why.why did our gas prices triple since the clinton years.this was before katrina.so to you bush republicans and democrats i say stand by your man

  • Tim Chase

    Being upset about the slow federal response to the disaster and Bush’s apparent indifference, I indulged in some black humor and came up with the image of Bush (cowboy boots on, ten gallon hat) playing a fiddle (Nero’s violin just wouldn’t be his style) while New Orleans went to hell — and said something about it to my wife. Didn’t hear that in reality he was playing a guitar until today.


    I guess reality can get almost as dark and twisted as my black humor.


  • E. Howard

    Everyone knows that G.W. is an idiot & didn’t want to ruin his vacation by leaving a little early. He should have a least made a few calls & put someone else on it. After all, he is the president. He DID, however, get his darling parents to visit the Astrodome for another Bush photo op. Another mistake. Barbara commented that this tragedy has a silver lining & the children there are “doing fine”. Afterall, “they were underpriveleged anyway”. What does silver lining or doing fine have to do with being in an open building w/10 to 20 thousand people that you do not know, being separated from your parents, losing everything you own, watching people die & just the pure terror of the hurricane & the flood itself? She then went on to talk about the “scary thought” of these people wanting to locate there permenately. G.W. should give up about 50 to 100 acres of his 1600 (or is it 16,000 acre ranch to build housing projects for these displaced folks who probably helped put him in office. That way he could continually see the ones that he totally forgot about, except when he needs someone to enlist & go get killed in Irag for the sake of his war. I can’t believe he suckered this country into believing he is a Chistian. A faith man. The only faith he has is in the almighty dollar. It buys him his way out of anything. He is in office to take care of himself & his buddies. To be a Christian is to be Christ like. Jesus spent time with the hungry, the needy, the sick & the criminals. (G.W. kills them. No mercy in Texas while he was govorner) Being born w/a silver foot in his mouth shows that the apple didn’t fall far from the Barbara tree. Does everyone like her so much that she can say any ignorant thing she wants & no one says anything? If Hillary Clinton had made those comments, she would have been crucified in the press. When are people going to realize that it was a GRAVE mistake electing this clown?

  • eddie fletcher

    i agree 100% with comment 8.if there where elections held today and Jesus Christ himself where running agianst george w.And americans new 100% that this man was Christ himself,george bush would still win the election by a landslide.i cant believe that america has became this blind to the truth.words cannot stress my disapointments with america since 2001.this country was once thought of as great and respected by other countries.now it is feared and we are thought of as terrorist.this country has lost its balls to speak out agianst its government.america we need to start asking why.stop rolling with the flow.sometimes if you roll with the flow you will go under three times but only come up twice.