Rhetoric, Reality Don't Match in Relief
Bush's Responses to Problems Concern Even the GOP
By RON FOURNIER, AP
"It's impossible to defend something like this happening in America," Newt Gingrich said of the hurricane response.
WASHINGTON (Sept. 2) - The Iraqi insurgency is in its last throes. The economy is booming. Anybody who leaks a CIA agent's identity will be fired. Add another piece of White House rhetoric that doesn't match the public's view of reality: Help is on the way, Gulf Coast.
As New Orleans descended into anarchy, President Bush and his emergency-response team congratulated each other for jobs well done and spoke of water, food and troops pouring into the ravaged city. Television pictures told a different story.
"What it reminded me of the other day is 'Baghdad Bob' saying there are no Americans at the airport," said Rich Galen, a Republican consultant in Washington. He was referring to Saddam Hussein's reality-challenged minister of information who denied the existence of U.S. troops in the Iraqi capital.
To some critics, Bush seemed to deny the existence of problems with hurricane relief this week. He waited until Friday to acknowledged that "the results are not acceptable," and even then Bush parsed his words
Republicans worry that he looks out of touch defending the chaotic emergency response.
"It's impossible to defend something like this happening in America," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
"No one can be happy with the kind of response which we've seen in New Orleans ... ," said Republican Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.
Bush got himself in trouble by trying to put the best face on a horrible situation. The strategy is so common in Washington that operatives have a name for it, "spin," and the Bush White House has perfected the shady art.
This is what the president had to say about the relief effort earlier in the week:
"What it reminded me of the other day is 'Baghdad Bob' saying there are no Americans at the airport."
"There's a lot of food on its way, a lot of water on the way, and there's a lot of boats and choppers headed that way."
"Thousands have been rescued. There's thousands more to be rescued. And there's a lot of people focusing their efforts on that."
"As we speak, people are moving into New Orleans area to maintain law and order."
Technically, the president may have been right. Help was on the way, if not fast enough to handle one of the largest emergency response efforts in U.S. history. But the words were jarring to Americans who saw images of looters, abandoned corpses and angry, desperate storm victims.
It was worse when he was wrong. In one interview, Bush said, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." In fact, many experts predicted a major storm would bust New Orleans' flood-control barriers.
One reason the public relations effort backfired on Bush is that Americans have seen it before.
On Iraq alone, the rhetoric has repeatedly fallen far short of reality. Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction. The mission wasn't accomplished in May 2003. Most allies avoided the hard work of his "coalition of the willing." And dozens of U.S. soldiers have died since Vice President Dick Cheney declared that insurgents were in their "last throes."
Bush often touts the health of the U.S. economy, which is fair game because many indicators point in that direction. But the public doesn't share his rosy view. The global economy had most Americans worried about job and pension security even before rising gas added to their anxieties.
Bush's spokesman said anybody involved in leaking the identity of a CIA agent would be fired, but no action has been taken against officials accused of doing so.
The president himself promised to fully pay for his school reform plan and strip pork-barrel spending from a major highway bill. The school money fell short. The pork thrived.
The list goes on. But this didn't start with Bush. Former President Clinton certainly had his rhetoric vs. reality problems. Indeed, most politicians do. At some point, however, the spin can take a toll.
Bush crafted a reputation as a blunt-speaking, can-do leader from his response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Five months later, about three-fourths of Americans viewed him as honest.
But his trust rating dropped gradually to a slim majority by the 2004 election year and remained at the mid-50s through the early part of 2005. In August, an AP-Ipsos poll showed 48 percent of respondents considered Bush honest, the lowest level of his presidency.
Americans like straight-shooters, especially in an era that has seen vast failures by government and social institutions. People are witnessing another institutional failure in the Gulf Coast, and Bush seemed willing to step up and acknowledge it Friday.
"The results are unacceptable," he said before leaving for a tour of the region. Few would disagree.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Ron Fournier has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 1993.
09/02/05 17:26 EDT