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Politics After Katrina

September 2, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Brooks and Oliphant, New York Times columnist David Brooks, Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant. Joining them tonight is NewsHour essayist and Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page. Mark Shields is off.

JIM LEHRER: David you said in a column this week that natural disasters, like Hurricane Katrina, exposed the basic fault lines in American society. Your thesis, please sir?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, what you get is you get these meteorological storms and then these political storms because in the moments of extremis people see who’s up and who’s down, who’s at fault and who is suffering. So, for example in 1897 there was the famous Johnstown Flood, a pond owned by millionaires including Andrew Carnegie flooded the town of Johnstown. The public anger over that helped spawn the Progressive Movement.

Then in 1927 you had the great Mississippi Flood, which flooded New Orleans. And there you have first of all, you had great demand for the government to get involved in disaster relief which had not happened much before then. And that helped lead the way to the New Deal. You also had the situation where the town fathers flooded some of the poorer and middle class areas to relieve some of the pressure on the rest of the city and then reneged on their promises for compensation for the people who had their homes destroyed. The anger over that, helped lead to the rise of Huey Long, the populist governor.

So what you get is this moments of extremists, people see the power inequalities, the poor suffering, the rich benefiting and then they react. And so you get these political reactions.

JIM LEHRER: And okay, now, move it to Hurricane Katrina and what we are seeing down there now.

DAVID BROOKS: I think it is a huge reaction we are about to see. I mean, first of all, they violated the social fabric, which is in the moments of crisis you take care of the poor first. That didn’t happen; it’s like leaving wounded on the battlefield.

So there is just — in 9/11 you had a great surge of public confidence. Now I think we are going to see a great decline in public confidence in our institutions. And so I just think this is sort of the anti-9/11 as one of the bloggers wrote.

JIM LEHRER: What would you add to that, Tom?

TOM OLIPHANT: I would say the fault lines are much deeper than that. I mean, on the one hand there is no question that we can see now with our own eyes the two Americas of which John Edwards began speaking a year and a half ago.

But deeper than that, I think, is the anger that is going to come from the realization that virtually all public policy — state, local, federal, where this area is concerned, has been against the public interests for decades. And the realization that government is one of the reasons we have government has been violated by virtually everything government has done for decades.

JIM LEHRER: And you are talking about the New Orleans Gulf Coast area?

JIM LEHRER: Wow.

TOM OLIPHANT: Before, during and after. So — that’s why I wonder whether we will actually move forward after this or whether recovering from the shock is going to be the principal job of society.

CLARENCE PAGE: I think my colleagues are making some excellent points here. And the only question to me is how big the quake is going to be. For one thing we have seen that the national agenda shift dramatically over this week to the domestic side.

I think there was — a number of shocks happened here. People saw as David mentions the — what we used to call the underclass really, the lower class of New Orleans, the folks with the most disenfranchised — those who are left out of the master emergency plan because the master plan was centered on evacuation.

And some how somebody forgot that one hundred to – one hundred thousand to two hundred thousand people would not have cars, would not have easy access to transportation, would be sick, elderly, infirm, a variety of problems, and then all these other backup problems involving the Superdome, involving people getting the word that there would be food and water over at the convention center. They got there, there was nothing, not even somebody with a clipboard and a megaphone.

Everything just broke down for the folks who needed help the most. And when government cannot provide for those who need help the most, it makes everybody else feel less secure. And then what about the folks on the highway, you had to go 50 miles away just to get some gasoline, to get food, water, no matter what class you were. Things just didn’t work as well as they were supposed to at a time when we are supposed to have a new Homeland Security Department, post 9/11, this is more than a decade after Hurricane Andrew shook up Bush 1 right before the ’92 election, and folks complained about the response of FEMA and Washington then. Have we learned anything?

And then finally, a lot of folks are looking at TV and saying ‘is this America?’ I was looking, I was reminded of Haiti, which I have been to twice in the last five years and I was reminded of a citie soleil, the worst slum in the poorest island country in this had this hemisphere as I was looking.

That is not the sight of New Orleans that we like to think about. But it is what, 62 percent of New Orleans is black, about a third of them are below the poverty line. We don’t like to think about them a lot here in America. But we got to think about them. And maybe people will think about them now.

JIM LEHRER: And you think, David, they will think about them, not just about those folks in New Orleans but the whole country now? You think that’s a possibility that this has exposed more than just New Orleans?

DAVID BROOKS: This is — first of all it is a national humiliation to see bodies floating in a river for five days in a major American city. But second, you have to remember, this was really a de-legitimization of institutions.

Our institutions completely failed us and it is not as if it is the first in the past three years — this follows Abu Ghraib, the failure of planning in Iraq, the intelligence failures, the corporate scandals, the media scandals.

We have had over the past four or five years a whole series of scandals that soured the public mood. You’ve seen a rise in feeling the country is headed in the wrong direction.

And I think this is the biggest one and the bursting one, and I must say personally it is the one that really says hey, it feels like the 70s now where you really have a loss of faith in institutions. Let’s get out of this mess. And I really think this is so important as a cultural moment, like the blackouts of 1977, just people are sick of it.

TOM OLIPHANT: And we’re still feeling it. I mean there are at least three more shocks yet to come on top of everything that has happened to this hour. One, sadly, is going to be the body count which we haven’t had.

JIM LEHRER: I just dread that moment. Don’t you dread that bulletin, when it’s going to come on the wires?

TOM OLIPHANT: Right. And then apologize for including this in the same thought but the next one is going to come when the bill is added up — not just to clean this up but to repair and rebuild the right way.

JIM LEHRER: And find new lives for all these people who are not going to come back.

TOM OLIPHANT: And then the third shock will be the impact — this is a regional disaster with immense national implications right away because of the impact on energy and on the economy. So everything that we’ve tried to absorb — to absorb to this moment is about to be greatly exceeded by what we have yet to absorb.

JIM LEHRER: Clarence, President Bush has caught a lot of criticism, his administration has caught a lot of criticism, is that fair?

CLARENCE PAGE: Well, the buck stops there. Frankly, there was a breakdown at all levels. The city didn’t respond as well as we would hope for — a city that’s been below sea level for a long time.

JIM LEHRER: Since day one.

CLARENCE PAGE: Thank you, you think they might have thought a little more about how many people wouldn’t have transportation, who couldn’t get to the buses that they had there, the few buses that were there. At the state level, what did happen with the National Guard? There’s got to be some kind of commission looking into this.

JIM LEHRER: Last night I interviewed the head of FEMA and he said –Michael Brown — and the president praised him today, etcetera, I’m not — but I asked him about the National Guard. He said well, by Sept. 4, we’ll have 30,000 here. And I’m thinking, wait a minute, wait a minute, we could put 30,000 people anywhere we want to — the U.S. Military can.

CLARENCE PAGE: You think so.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. And I interrupted you, sorry.

CLARENCE PAGE: In the wake of the tsunami disaster where we seemed to be remarkably able to bring a lot of aid halfway around the planet why couldn’t we bring more aid within twenty-four, thirty-six, forty-eight hours to New Orleans, and that is where the buck stops with the White House insofar as the Department of Homeland Security, the new setup between DHS and FEMA. That was supposed to improve matters, has it improved matters since Hurricane Andrew, it doesn’t look like it.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, I think the key task for someone in my line of work at a moment like this is to try to analyze whether what counts is the president himself or whether the president himself is emblematic of something else.

And at this point I don’t think there is any question that Bush is emblematic of this larger, deeper failure of government. I don’t think he’s any worse than government in general has been. I don’t think he’s any better.

And as a result, I see him more as a symbol of what has gone on for years, again, and it’s not one party or the other party or one ideology or another ideology; government has failed here. And what Bush didn’t do before the hurricane or didn’t do right away after the hurricane is only emblematic of that failure.

JIM LEHRER: You think?

DAVID BROOKS: First of all, I’m hesitant to judge the government because a week ago I couldn’t have picked Michael Brown out of a lineup.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

DAVID BROOKS: But to reiterate the point I made earlier, which is this is the anti-9/11, just in terms of public confidence, when 9/11 happened Giuliani was right there and just as a public presence, forceful — no public presence like that now. So you have had a surge of strength, people felt good about the country even though we had been hit on 9/11.

Now we’ve been hit again in a different way; people feel lousy; people feel ashamed and part of that is because of the public presentation. In part that is because of the failure of Bush to understand immediately the shame people felt.

Sitting up there on the airplane and looking out the window was terrible. And the three days of doing nothing, really, on Bush was terrible. And even today, I found myself, as you know, I support his politics quite often.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DAVID BROOKS: Look at him today earlier in the program, this is how Mark Shields must feel looking at him, I’m angry at the guy and maybe it will pass for me. But a lot of people and a lot of Republicans are furious right now.

CLARENCE PAGE: Including the — up in New Hampshire, the Union Leader, the Washington Times, our friend Tony Blankley wrote a critical editorial about President Bush today. These are the kind of things, this transcends party lines.

We are talking about the institution of the presidency and the sense of well-being across the country. I personally didn’t appreciate Rudy Giuliani so much in my life as I appreciated him this week in his absence.

There was an absence of a Rudolph Giuliani that you had on 9/11 who was that figure who seemed to be taking charge and empathizing, caring right there with everybody else and really articulating the crisis.

TOM OLIPHANT: Let me take the other side here, in other words, to try to understand how deeply implicated Democrats are, who helped straighten the Mississippi River when it shouldn’t have been straightened, who did their part to neglect the wetlands south of New Orleans that are supposed to help provide natural protection. The symbol of this in a way –

JIM LEHRER: The wetlands are pretty much gone around New Orleans.

TOM OLIPHANT: And government is deeply implicated in all of that. And maybe the symbols might be some of the politicians in Louisiana today who are Republicans, say Billy Tauzin, who used to be a Democrat. And it is really hard to discern the distinction in terms of the behavior.

In recent years Louisiana politicians have been trying to raise the alarm a little bit about the situation but the fact of the matter is in allowing public policy to serve private interest as opposed to the public interest, there is no partisan responsibility.

DAVID BROOKS: The other issue is why are there so many poor people in New Orleans, why is Raleigh booming, why is Houston booming, why is Atlanta booming but New Orleans has not boomed? And in part, it’s because of the corruption of the government that has been part of the charming New Orleans for decades.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah, I want to pick up on something you said, Clarence, it was in passing about the shame that people felt in looking at these pictures and saying, you know this is in New Orleans, Louisiana, the United States of America.

CLARENCE PAGE: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: And everybody feels that.

CLARENCE PAGE: Everybody does. This is something, you know, I was asked, do you think the very fact that most of the misery was shared by poor black folks will make it easier for Americans to ignore, and I said no, I think just the opposite because this was going out to the whole world.

This is indicative of our image of ourselves as Americans, our ability to help each other in times of need — that transcends the ideological arguments and also as I mentioned that notion that if we can’t take care of the least of these, how well can we take care of ourselves or our own families –

JIM LEHRER: But you think that’s the message that is coming out?

CLARENCE PAGE: I feel like that is a reason why you are going to see a lot, you are already seeing a lot of negative reaction across party lines on the way things work and President Bush himself finally coming out today saying ‘unacceptable.’ I mean that is the strongest language he has used all week. I mean, he is in moving in the direction of where he ought to be.

TOM OLIPHANT: I think just to be optimistic for a second, maybe there is another metaphor that may work, and that is, admittedly, this disaster has had a racial color to it that we could all see. But there is an interest in Slidell and Metairie just next to New Orleans that is the same as the interest in poverty-stricken New Orleans. And perhaps once again there is that, the makings of a coalition that crosses racial lines and not just party lines. People in Slidell and Metairie have suffered awful things this week too.

CLARENCE PAGE: And Mississippi.

TOM OLIPHANT: And Mississippi, absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see any reason to be optimistic?

TOM OLIPHANT: I guess in that things are going to change now. You know –

JIM LEHRER: They have to change.

TOM OLIPHANT: This will be another, it is not a tipping point — it is like a bursting point, people are going to go off in all directions — just in narrow political terms, a month ago Rudy Giuliani would have had trouble getting the Republican nomination. Now he would win in a walk if there were a primary held soon.

Then on the Democratic side you’re going to see people like John Edwards talking about poverty which they hadn’t been talking about. You are going to see people all around the country talking about poverty, people -

JIM LEHRER: — which they would not talk about during the election campaign.

TOM OLIPHANT: Exactly. In the 70s people said I want to get that decade over with. And they had a change. And I don’t know what it is going to be but something will change.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Well, we’ll leave it there. Thank you all three very much.

Clarence, good to see you, thanks for being with us.

CLARENCE PAGE: Thank you

JIM LEHRER: And good to see you again, Tom.

TOM OLIPHANT: Thank you Jim.