As the levees cracked open and ushered hell into New Orleans on Tuesday, President Bush once again chose to fly away from Washington, not toward it, while disaster struck. We can all enumerate the many differences between a natural catastrophe and a terrorist attack. But character doesn't change: it is immutable, and it is destiny.
As always, the president's first priority, the one that sped him from Crawford toward California, was saving himself: he had to combat the flood of record-low poll numbers that was as uncontrollable as the surging of Lake Pontchartrain. It was time, therefore, for another disingenuous pep talk, in which he would exploit the cataclysm that defined his first term, 9/11, even at the price of failing to recognize the emerging fiasco likely to engulf Term 2.
After dispatching Katrina with a few sentences of sanctimonious boilerplate ("our hearts and prayers are with our fellow citizens"), he turned to his more important task. The war in Iraq is World War II. George W. Bush is F.D.R. And anyone who refuses to stay his course is soft on terrorism and guilty of a pre-9/11 "mind-set of isolation and retreat." Yet even as Mr. Bush promised "victory" (a word used nine times in this speech on Tuesday), he was standing at the totemic scene of his failure. It was along this same San Diego coastline that he declared "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln more than two years ago. For this return engagement, The Washington Post reported, the president's stage managers made sure he was positioned so that another hulking aircraft carrier nearby would stay off-camera, lest anyone be reminded of that premature end of "major combat operations."
This administration would like us to forget a lot, starting with the simple fact that next Sunday is the fourth anniversary of the day we were attacked by Al Qaeda, not Iraq. Even before Katrina took command of the news, Sept. 11, 2005, was destined to be a half-forgotten occasion, distorted and sullied by a grotesquely inappropriate Pentagon-sponsored country music jamboree on the Mall. But hard as it is to reflect upon so much sorrow at once, we cannot allow ourselves to forget the real history surrounding 9/11; it is the Rosetta stone for what is happening now. If we are to pull ourselves out of the disasters of Katrina and Iraq alike, we must live in the real world, not the fantasyland of the administration's faith-based propaganda. Everything connects.
Though history is supposed to occur first as tragedy, then as farce, even at this early stage we can see that tragedy is being repeated once more as tragedy. From the president's administration's inattention to threats before 9/11 to his disappearing act on the day itself to the reckless blundering in the ill-planned war of choice that was 9/11's bastard offspring, Katrina is déjà vu with a vengeance.
The president's declaration that "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees" has instantly achieved the notoriety of Condoleezza Rice's "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center." The administration's complete obliviousness to the possibilities for energy failures, food and water deprivation, and civil disorder in a major city under siege needs only the Donald Rumsfeld punch line of "Stuff happens" for a coup de grâce. How about shared sacrifice, so that this time we might get the job done right? After Mr. Bush's visit on "Good Morning America" on Thursday, Diane Sawyer reported on a postinterview conversation in which he said, "There won't have to be tax increases."
But on a second go-round, even the right isn't so easily fooled by this drill (with the reliable exception of Peggy Noonan, who found much reassurance in Mr. Bush's initial autopilot statement about the hurricane, with its laundry list of tarps and blankets). This time the fecklessness and deceit were all too familiar. They couldn't be obliterated by a bullhorn or by the inspiring initial post-9/11 national unity that bolstered the president until he betrayed it. This time the heartlessness beneath the surface of his actions was more pronounced.
You could almost see Mr. Bush's political base starting to crumble at its very epicenter, Fox News, by Thursday night. Even there it was impossible to ignore that the administration was no more successful at securing New Orleans than it had been at pacifying Falluja.
A visibly exasperated Shepard Smith, covering the story on the ground in Louisiana, went further still, tossing hand grenades of harsh reality into Bill O'Reilly's usually spin-shellacked "No Spin Zone." Among other hard facts, Mr. Smith noted "that the haves of this city, the movers and shakers of this city, evacuated the city either immediately before or immediately after the storm." What he didn't have to say, since it was visible to the entire world, was that it was the poor who were left behind to drown.
In that sense, the inequality of the suffering has not only exposed the sham of the relentless photo-ops with black schoolchildren whom the president trots out at campaign time to sell his "compassionate conservatism"; it has also positioned Katrina before a rapt late-summer audience as a replay of the sinking of the Titanic. New Orleans's first-class passengers made it safely into lifeboats; for those in steerage, it was a horrifying spectacle of every man, woman and child for himself.
THE captain in this case, Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary, was so oblivious to those on the lower decks that on Thursday he applauded the federal response to the still rampaging nightmare as "really exceptional." He told NPR that he had "not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who don't have food and water" - even though every television viewer in the country had been hearing of those 25,000 stranded refugees for at least a day. This Titanic syndrome, too, precisely echoes the post-9/11 wartime history of an administration that has rewarded the haves at home with economic goodies while leaving the have-nots to fight in Iraq without proper support in manpower or armor. Surely it's only a matter of time before Mr. Chertoff and the equally at sea FEMA director, Michael Brown (who also was among the last to hear about the convention center), are each awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in line with past architects of lethal administration calamity like George Tenet and Paul Bremer.
On Thursday morning, the president told Diane Sawyer that he hoped "people don't play politics during this period of time." Presumably that means that the photos of him wistfully surveying the Katrina damage from Air Force One won't be sold to campaign donors as the equivalent 9/11 photos were. Maybe he'll even call off the right-wing attack machine so it won't Swift-boat the Katrina survivors who emerge to ask tough questions as it has Cindy Sheehan and those New Jersey widows who had the gall to demand a formal 9/11 inquiry.
But a president who flew from Crawford to Washington in a heartbeat to intervene in the medical case of a single patient, Terri Schiavo, has no business lecturing anyone about playing politics with tragedy. Eventually we're going to have to examine the administration's behavior before, during and after this storm as closely as its history before, during and after 9/11. We're going to have to ask if troops and matériel of all kinds could have arrived faster without the drain of national resources into a quagmire. We're going to have to ask why it took almost two days of people being without food, shelter and water for Mr. Bush to get back to Washington.
Most of all, we're going to have to face the reality that with this disaster, the administration has again increased our vulnerability to the terrorists we were supposed to be fighting after 9/11. As Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism czar, pointed out to The Washington Post last week in talking about the fallout from the war in Iraq, there have been twice as many terrorist attacks outside Iraq in the three years after 9/11 than in the three years before. Now, thanks to Mr. Bush's variously incompetent, diffident and hubristic mismanagement of the attack by Katrina, he has sent the entire world a simple and unambiguous message: whatever the explanation, the United States is unable to fight its current war and protect homeland security at the same time.
The answers to what went wrong in Washington and on the Gulf Coast will come later, and, if the history of 9/11 is any guide, all too slowly, after the administration and its apologists erect every possible barrier to keep us from learning the truth. But as Americans dig out from Katrina and slouch toward another anniversary of Al Qaeda's strike, we have to acknowledge the full extent and urgency of our crisis. The world is more perilous than ever, and for now, to paraphrase Mr. Rumsfeld, we have no choice but to fight the war with the president we have.