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After Katrina, America's Political Crisis

By Robert Parry
September 9, 2005

The political crisis now confronting the United States can be viewed as a nail-biting thriller in which a harrowing truth slowly dawns on a community, as the threat builds toward a calamity. In movies, the final disaster is usually averted; but in real life, the recognition of the danger sometimes comes too late.

That is the political significance of the public outrage over the Bush administration’s inept response to Hurricane Katrina – as well as the growing recognition that America finally must confront the threat of global warming, that the Iraq War is a death trap, and that the massive budget and trade deficits are mortgaging the nation’s future.

More and more Americans are waking up to the realization that they were lulled to sleep by the clever operatives who surround George W. Bush. Now, with New Orleans turned into a giant cesspool by the collapse of neglected levees – and with bloated remains of American citizens left for days to rot in the hot sun – the nation is finally shaking itself alert and finding that the nightmare is all too real.

So, the overriding question has become: Is this awakening too late, is there still time to stop Bush and his allies from consolidating their political control over the federal government?

Even as the Bush administration staggers through the twin debacles of Katrina and Iraq, the Right is within reach of its long-sought goal of locking in Republican control of the government for the foreseeable future, with Bush serving as what conservatives call a “transformational” president. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush & the Rise of ‘Managed-Democracy.’”]

Already holding the White House and Congress, the conservatives see the final key as gaining firm control of the federal courts. That way Bush’s assertion of nearly unlimited presidential power can be rubber-stamped and any electoral disputes – like the one that put Bush in office in 2000 – can be settled in the Republicans’ favor.

With this goal in mind, the White House is pressing for quick confirmation of John Roberts, Bush’s nominee to succeed the late William Rehnquist as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Then will come another conservative to fill the vacancy from Sandra Day O’Connor’s retirement. [For more on this judicial strategy, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Roberts & the ‘Apex of Presidential Power’” and “Rehnquist’s Legacy: A Partisan Court.”]

Media Power

Another major advantage for the Right’s strategy is how the American Left continues to underestimate the importance of media infrastructure as a force for setting the nation’s political agenda.

Again this year, the liberal funding community largely rebuffed appeals for money to build a counter-media infrastructure that could begin competing with what conservative funders have created over the past three decades. [For details on this 30-year plan, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]

There remains a prevailing attitude on the Left that the current media imbalance will somehow correct itself or that the imposition of government regulations will do the trick. [For more details on this phenomenon, see Consortiumnews.com “The Left’s Media Miscalculation.”]

Yet the sheer magnitude of the Right’s media infrastructure – newspapers, magazines, radio, columnists, television, books and the Internet – gives conservative Republicans a huge advantage, especially during a crisis. When facing rough political waters, the Right’s media acts as the ballast that steadies the conservative ship.

For instance, as the Bush administration bungled Katrina’s aftermath, right-wing talk radio hosts did the best they could to shift the blame from the failures of Bush’s Federal Emergency Management Agency to state and local officials and even to the mostly poor, black survivors trapped in New Orleans.

As the Katrina crisis built on Aug. 31, I was on the road driving north from Washington and was amazed to hear right-wing AM radio talkers argue that “able-bodied” people who lacked transportation should simply have walked out of New Orleans. The message was clear: if these folks weren’t so lazy and stupid, they would have used their own two feet.

But the idea of trying to out-walk a hurricane with 150-mile-per-hour winds would seem nutty to anyone who’s ever lived through even a milder storm. Still, the argument gave the conservative base another reason not to blame Bush.

Air America

While on the road, I also got a taste of how valuable progressive talk radio could be for arming American liberals with facts and for persuading middle Americans that the nation needs new leadership.

As I drove past New York City, I picked up an Air America Radio station where the hosts explained how Bush’s spending in Iraq had diverted money needed to strengthen New Orleans’ levees and how deployment of National Guard troops in Iraq had undermined the Guard’s ability to respond to the disaster.

What was even more striking was the anger and passion in the voices of Air America listeners who called in from all over the country. They were furious over the national disgrace that was unfolding in New Orleans, as Bush vacationed in Texas and then responded haltingly to the crisis.

But the radio signal of the New York City station faded as I reached upstate New York. The only AM talk radio I could get then was the far more pervasive conservative variety. On those stations, the New Orleans crisis either was treated as not that big a deal or as something to blame on anybody but Bush.

I was in Montreal on Sept. 2 when Bush made his belated trip to the Gulf Coast. On television, he appeared disconnected from the human tragedy and desperate to suggest that the catastrophe was entirely unforeseen.

“I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees,” Bush told ABC’s Diane Sawyer, although the threat to the levees had been recognized for years.

In a report prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, FEMA had listed a hurricane inundating New Orleans as one of the three most likely catastrophes hitting the United States, along with a terrorist assault on New York City and a San Francisco earthquake.

A breach of the levees also had been a major topic of discussion on news and weather channels as Katrina churned through the Gulf of Mexico toward New Orleans. There could be no doubt that Bush had been made aware of this danger at that time.

After levees protecting the city gave way, the unheeded forewarnings again dominated the news. On Aug. 30, 2005, three days before Bush’s trip, an article at the Web site of the New Orleans Times-Picayune said, “no one can say they didn’t see it coming.”

The next day, Editor & Publisher posted a story summarizing nine articles that had appeared in the Times-Picayune about the levee danger in 2004 and 2005, including evidence that the cost of the Iraq War had forced a diversion of funds away from rebuilding the sinking levees.

The article said, “On June 8, 2004, Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, told the Times-Picayune: ‘It appears that the money has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that’s the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can’t be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us.” [Editor & Publisher, Aug. 31, 2005]

Ignoring Facts

But Bush brushed away this history with the confidence of a man who has long disdained facts and gotten away with it. After all, he had taken the country to war in Iraq under false pretenses and paid no serious political price for his deceptions. [For examples, see Consortiumnews.com’s “President Bush, With the Candlestick…”]

So, as tens of thousands of mostly poor and black citizens endured unspeakable squalor in flooded New Orleans, Bush slid into the role of peppy cheerleader and consoled friends like Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who had lost one of his homes.

“Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott’s house – he’s lost his entire house – there’s going to be a fantastic house,” Bush joshed. “And I’m looking forward to sitting on the porch.”

Bush also had some encouraging words for his hapless FEMA director, Michael Brown. “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” Bush said.

As I watched the BBC’s evening news at a home in Montreal on Sept. 2, the British network cut live to Bush making more remarks before boarding a flight back to Washington. Again there was the startling disconnect between Bush’s banter and the suffering of millions in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Playing for laughs, Bush included a recollection about his past hard partying in New Orleans, which he called “the town where I used to come … to enjoy myself, occasionally too much.”

On Saturday, Sept. 3, driving back toward Washington, I reached the New York City area and again tuned in the Air America station. But I was disappointed to hear only the broadcast of pre-recorded “best-of” content, some of it predating Hurricane Katrina. Air America appeared to lack the resources to dispatch correspondents to the scene and offer special live weekend coverage of the crisis.

I did, however, find live right-wing talk radio, including more blame being heaped on the trapped New Orleans residents for not using their feet and walking out of the city before the hurricane hit.

This disdain for the poor of New Orleans wasn’t limited to some loudmouths on talk radio, either. It extended directly into the president’s family.

After visiting with evacuees in Houston’s Astrodome, former First Lady Barbara Bush confided her discomfort over “what I’m hearing which is sort of scary is they all want to stay in Texas. … So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this – this (she chuckles) is working very well for them.”

Feisty Press

Still, as clumsily as the Bush administration performed – and as surprisingly feisty as the mainstream news media became in the hurricane’s aftermath – the conservative advantage in media infrastructure over the liberals probably means that Bush will be able to ride out the short-term political storm left behind by Katrina.

The media weakness of the American Left also suggests that little can be done to demand any serious accountability. Whereas in a more balanced political system a strong case could be made for Bush’s impeachment – over both Iraq and Katrina – the Right’s current dominance leaves little reason to think that Bush can be pushed out before 2009.

Bush may have to retreat temporarily from parts of his agenda, such as his plans to partially privatize Social Security and permanently repeal the federal estate tax. But Bush has shown no sign of making significant changes on issues like Iraq and global warming.

Over the next three-plus years, unless Republicans lose control of the Congress in 2006, Bush also can expect a reasonably free hand in appointing federal judges and deciding how far he should go in curtailing civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s Grimmer Vision.”]

The twin disasters of Katrina and Iraq may have sounded loud warnings about the risk of a nation putting ideology and cronyism over common sense and responsible government. But the longer-term catastrophe may be the transformation of the U.S. political system into one that favors authoritarianism over democratic values.

Even as Americans grow more aware of the danger, it is calamity that may already be too far advanced to head off.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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