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Bush, Katrina & Trent Lott's House

By Robert Parry
August 29, 2006

On his 13th trip to the Katrina-devastated Gulf Coast, where hundreds died and tens of thousands lost everything they had, George W. Bush was still mourning the loss of Sen. Trent Lott’s Mississippi waterfront house.

Hurricane Katrina “was massive in its destruction,” Bush told reporters along for his Aug. 28 visit to the slowly recovering region. “It spared nobody. United States Senator Trent Lott had a fantastic house overlooking the bay. I know because I sat in it with he and his wife. And now it’s completely obliterated. There’s nothing.”

Indeed, perhaps the most revealing glimpse that the Katrina disaster offered into Bush’s inner self was the contrast between his strained attempts at empathy for the common folks – like a photo-op hug for a couple of well-scrubbed African-American girls who survived the flood – and his pain over the destruction of one home owned by a millionaire senator who lives most of the year in Washington.

Katrina ripped off the pretense of Bush’s folksy style, showing that he remains the son of privilege who feels for those like himself and feigns sympathy for others. After Katrina hit the Gulf region and inundated New Orleans one year ago, White House officials even had trouble getting a vacationing Bush to focus on the magnitude of the disaster.

As tens of thousands of Americans in New Orleans pleaded for rescue and as hundreds of bodies rotted in the heat, Bush belatedly agreed to cut short his five-week Texas vacation but still insisted on fulfilling speaking engagements in San Diego and Phoenix – where he posed clowning with a gift guitar – before heading back to Washington.

Back at the White House, Bush’s staff – knowing their boss’ disinterest in reading newspapers or watching the TV news – tried to clue Bush in on how bad things were by burning a special DVD with TV footage of the flood so he could watch the DVD on Air Force One, Newsweek’s Evan Thomas reported in a retrospective on the flood.

“How this could be – how the President of the United States could have even less ‘situational awareness,’ as they say in the military, than the average American about the worse natural disaster in a century – is one of the more perplexing and troubling chapters in a story that, despite moments of heroism and acts of great generosity, ranks as a national disgrace,” Thomas wrote. [Newsweek, Sept. 18, 2005, issue]

Yet, despite the DVD showing the horrific conditions, Bush still treated his first trip to the stricken Gulf region on Sept. 2, 2005, as a chance to pat his disaster team on the back and chat up the locals about how everything was going to turn out just great.

Bush praised his inept Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown. “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” Bush famously remarked, just days before Brown was relieved of command and resigned from FEMA.

Bush also consoled Sen. Lott, who had lost one of his homes to the flood. “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.”

Even as he was departing, Bush still wasn’t connecting to the magnitude of the horror. At a press briefing before boarding Air Force One, Bush recalled his past hard partying in New Orleans, which he called “the town where I used to come … to enjoy myself, occasionally too much.”

Later that night on a TV fundraiser for hurricane relief, rapper Kanye West summed up the President’s behavior with the memorable line: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” The remark sent NBC executives into a panic that led to them censoring West’s comment from the show’s rebroadcast in the Pacific time zone.

More Compassion

But many Americans appeared to have agreed with Kanye West. Bush’s approval ratings dropped to record lows, prompting Bush to revise his approach to the crisis. He ordered up more trips to the region, posed with more African-Americans and vowed a vast rebuilding project on par with what he has promised for Iraq.

On Sept. 15, 2005, Bush gave a nationally televised speech in shirt sleeves in New Orleans’ Jackson Square with special generators and lighting flown in to give the President a dramatic backdrop.

“We will do what it takes. We will stay as long as it takes,” Bush declared in phrasing reminiscent of his pledges about Iraq.

But his poll numbers continued to fall and he returned to the scene again to demonstrate more concern and more compassion. “We look forward to hearing your vision so we can more better do our job,” Bush said at a briefing in Gulfport, Miss.

As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd observed, “There’s nothing more pathetic than watching someone who’s out of touch feign being in touch.”

Though Dowd believed that Bush was echoing his father’s pretense of empathy as in his dad’s famous comment, “Message: I care,” the President may have been revealing how much he is like his mother, Barbara, who visited flood survivors at the Houston Astrodome and commented, “what I’m hearing which is sort of scary is they all want to stay in Texas.”

The former First Lady then added, “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.”

One year later, George W. Bush is still trying to put the best possible spin on the slow pace of the region’s recovery.

“There will be a momentum; a momentum will be gathered,” he explained to reporters. “Houses will begat jobs, jobs will begat houses.”

But no house seems to grab the President’s attention the way that Trent Lott’s does.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest 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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