The Journal Editorial Report | September 16, 2005 | PBS
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Briefing and Opinion
September 16, 2005

The Work of Recovery

After taking the blame for the federal government's failures in responding to the devastation of hurricane Katrina, President Bush went on primetime television to outline his plans for the Gulf Coast and, not incidentally, to try to recover some of the support he has lost. Here is some of what he had to say:

Bush
"We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives. And all who question the future of the Crescent City need to know; there is no way to imagine America without New Orleans and this great city will rise again."


PAUL GIGOT: This speech by the president lacks some of the soaring rhetoric of some of his other speeches. Did it set the right tone and accomplish what he wanted to accomplish?

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: I think it set the right tone, I don't see how it could have avoided it. Though I have to say that I don't think he was well served by that walk across to the scene. It was supposed to be an evocation perhaps of the 9/11 speech where he stood in the rubble -- two very different occasions.

Dorothy Rabinowitz and Paul Gigot
But he said what needed to be said. I don't think he could conceivably have come to meet the challenge that was set up for him in many ways by the media which is "Can you do for this occasion what you did for September 11th?." The first occasion spoke to all of his strengths. An enemy had come, had battered the United States and he spoke for the rage of a citizenry. Well, a floor is not Al Qaeda.

GIGOT: Well, he did need, I think, to retrieve the sense of command, the sense that he understood the event, that he had a direction, a plan, because that is really dangerous for a president when the public begins to wonder if you've lost that. Did he capture some of that, Dan?

DANIEL HENNINGER: I think he captured some of it. The part that I don't think he captured really is, what are we trying to achieve with the rebuilding of New Orleans? New Orleans is a famous historic city to be sure, but it was an economically moribund city and hardly different than Detroit or say Camden, New Jersey. Unless some incentive, some real incentives, are created to kickstart New Orleans economically, you are going to return it ultimately to the status it was in before -- as an economically defunct urban center. Where is the morality in that?

Paul Gigot
GIGOT: I think we have a chart showing what he proposed. He talked about a Gulf Opportunity Zone with new tax incentives, for example. And quicker expensing to get investment into the region, worker recovery accounts where each person would get $5,000 dollars, then urban homesteading to promote home ownership. That is not a great society plan where the government does everything for you. It strikes me as philosophically different.

HENNINGER: But nothing to fix the catastrophically failed school system in New Orleans, which is where people are supposed to get the skill sets to be able to function in an economy.

GIGOT: It is true, Melanie. He did talk about taking on this question of poverty. It seemed an important part of his speech to say "Look, we are going to address this problem." Is there enough on the table to do that?

MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: I don't know. The devil is in the details and I liked what I heard. At least one commentator has called it a kind of conservative war on poverty. If he can succeed in bringing prosperity to New Orleans and in changing the culture of poverty that has been there for so many years, then every other city in America, the Camdens that Dan talked
Melanie Kirkpatrick
about and the Detroits, is going to want exactly the same thing.

GIGOT: He has got to go to Congress, Dorothy. Congress does one thing and one thing well -- they spend money.

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: That's right.

GIGOT: This administration is not known for standing up to Congress. Is there a danger here that we end up with the president having perhaps a good conceptual plan to do it differently, but in the end he just goes along with whatever they send to him?

RABINOWITZ: There is already voiced concern in Congress about what this is going to cause. When I listened to this I heard the War on Poverty speech almost in the apocalyptic...

GIGOT: LBJ's War on Poverty speech, Lyndon Baines Johnson.

RABINOWITZ: Yes, I heard the apocalyptic tones of Lyndon Johnson declaring a war on poverty. What is so strange and mildly off-putting about that, not that one doesn't need an attack on poverty, is how can it be that this flood has opened up to Americans the realization that there is vast poverty in New Orleans as though we had never known this. This discovery is an opportunity to inveigh against the two Americas and all of these rhetorical challenges that issued from that.

GIGOT: Dan, I was struck by one other point, and that is the president said in the future we will need to have greater federal authorities on these questions dealing with disaster and more from the Armed Forces.

Dan Henninger
HENNINGER: Exactly. There is great fear inside the government of how we would respond to a WMD attack and I think they want to invest more authority in the Armed Forces to respond to that. This will require legislative actions to change some of the existing laws that deal with natural disasters. That will have to be dealt with by Congress or through executive authority. But it shatters, or goes directly against, some deeply rooted American traditions about sovereignty and state authority. This is a debate I think we need to have now.

GIGOT: It's pretty clear that we're just at the very beginnings of that debate.