Bush's America is gone with the wind. It lasted just short of four years, from 9/11 to 8/29. The devastation of New Orleans was the watery equivalent of a dirty bomb - but Hurricane Katrina approached with advance warnings, scientific anticipation and, before it struck, a personal briefing of the president by the director of the National Hurricane Centre, who warned of breached levees. No terrorist attack could be as completely foreseen as was Katrina.
Bush's presidency and re-election campaign was organised around one master idea: he stood as the protector and saviour of the American people under siege. On this he built his persona as a man of conviction and action. In the 2004 election a critical mass believed that, because of his unabashed patriotism and unembarrassed religiosity, he would do more to protect the country.
The deepest wound is not that he was incapable of defending the country but that he has shown he lacked the will to do so. In Bush's own evangelical language, he revealed his heart. The press disclosed a petulant, vacillating president they had not noticed before. Time magazine described a "rigid and top-down" White House where aides are petrified to deliver bad news to a "yelling" president. Newsweek reported that, two days after the hurricane, top aides, who "cringe" before Bush, met to decide which of them would be assigned the miserable task of telling him he would have to cut short his vacation.
With each of his three trips to survey the toxic floodwaters of New Orleans, Bush drifted farther out to sea. On his most recent voyage, on Monday, asked about his earlier statement, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees", he said: "When that storm came through at first, people said, 'Whew!' There was a sense of relaxation." In fact, the levees began to be breached before the eye of the storm hit the city. Queried about the sudden resignation that day of his Federal Emergency Management Agency director, Michael "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" Brown, Bush told the press, "Maybe you know something I don't know". On Tuesday, he tried a novel tactic to deflect "the blame game", as he called it. "To the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right," he declared, "I take responsibility." "Extent" was the loophole allowing his magnanimity to be bestowed on the distant abstraction of government.
It was easier for Bush to renounce alcohol at 40 than ideology at 60. Bush had radicalized Reagan's conservatism, but never has Reagan's credo rung so hollow: "Government is not the solution to our problem." Social Darwinism cannot protect the homeland. Many thousands, mostly poor black people, were trapped in the convention centre without food and water for days. Poverty has increased more than 9% since Bush assumed office. The disparity between the superpower's evangelical mission to democratise the world and indifference at home is a foreign policy crisis of new dimension. Can Iraq be saved if Louisiana is lost? Bush's credibility gap is a geopolitical problem without a geopolitical solution. Assuming a new mission, the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, wears her racial identity to witness for Bush's purity of heart.
So long as Bush could wrap himself in 9/11 his image was shielded. But once another event of magnitude thundered over his central claim as national defender, the Bush myth crumbled. Now his evocation of 9/11 only reminds the public of his failed promise. The hurricane has tossed and turned the country but will not deposit it on firm ground for at least the three and a half years remaining of the ruined Bush presidency.
Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior adviser to President Clinton, is the author of The Clinton Wars. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2005 Guardian Newspapers Limited