Unwagging the Dog


For the Bush spin machine, the dual disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the official response to it presented a rare instance where the facts proved hard to manipulate.

The idea was to push blame away from the White House and toward Louisiana Democrats like Governor Kathleen Blanco. But suddenly, the dog wouldn’t wag. The props, the carefully stage-managed Bush photo opportunities, the anonymous White House quotes smearing local officials, kept unraveling just as fast as the spinners can issue them. And they just keep unraveling. Here are a few examples.

  • On Sunday, September 4, the Washington Post quoted an anonymous White House source as saying that in the critical days as New Orleans was filling with water, the White House was prevented from sending federal assistance to aid flood victims because of a technicality—Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco had not declared a state of emergency. On its face, the claim seemed absurd—thousands of New Orleanians were left to drown, dehydrate, and starve because of a technicality? And indeed, only hours later, the Post was forced to publish an above-the-story correction revealing how badly they had been burned by their anonymous White House source:

    Correction to This Article:

    A Sept. 4 article on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina incorrectly said that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) had not declared a state of emergency. She declared an emergency on Aug. 26. “

    The quote may have revealed a blatant White House effort to steer the “blame
    game” toward the Democratic governor (all the while directing the
    White House and its supporters to respond to critics, as if in chorus, with
    variations of the pious phrase, “Now’s not the time to play the blame game.”)

    Or maybe not. “Should the paper identify the source who provided bad information?” Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz asked. To which the story’s co-author Spencer Hsu replied, “We don’t blow sources, period, especially if we don’t have reason to believe the source in this case actually lied deliberately.”

  • A second example of unraveling spin: On Tuesday, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that 1,000 firefighters from around the country who had urgently reported to FEMA to be dispatched to the Gulf disaster area had instead been sent by FEMA for a day of sexual harassment and sensitivity training to Atlanta, as fires raged in New Orleans chemical plants and warehouses. As the firefighters grew increasingly frustrated at the Atlanta Sheraton training, they were notified that they would not be doing any firefighting or search-and-rescue operations once they got to the region anyhow. Rather, FEMA officials informed them, they would be sent to hand out fliers with FEMA’s phone number. What’s more, the Tribune revealed, the first assignment for 50 of the firefighters? “As specific orders began arriving to the firefighters in Atlanta, a team of 50 Monday morning quickly was ushered onto a flight headed for Louisiana. The crew’s first assignment: to stand beside President Bush as he tours devastated areas.” In other words, they were flown to Louisiana for a totally stage managed photo opportunity.

    Naturally, such safe presidential photo opportunities, however artificial, were preferred to the risks of Bush meeting with the flood’s most acute—and angry—mostly black victims. As a “prominent African-American supporter of Mr. Bush who is close to Karl Rove,” told the New York Times’ Elizabeth Bumiller:

    “If I’m Karl, do I want the visual of black people hollering at the president as if we’re living in Rwanda?”

  • A third example follows from the second: FEMA management was revealed in multiple news reports as staffed from top to bottom by Bush-Cheney campaign veterans, advance men, and political appointees rather than those with emergency management experience. Perhaps predictably, they defined their duties in the aftermath of Katrina as being about making the Bush administration response look effective. Indeed, a memo by FEMA chief Michael Brown leaked to the press directed employees to “convey a positive image of disaster operations to government officials, community organizations and the general public.”

    Many of the firefighters were having none of it. And ultimately, the White House removed Brown from Katrina duties on Friday, turning the operation over to a Coast Guard official, Vice Admiral Thad W. Allen.

    As tens of thousands of troops from the National Guard and the 82nd airborne were finally deployed to New Orleans days after the worst of the flooding and the majority of lives lost, NBC’s Brian Williams recorded the scene on the network’s blog. “Yesterday afternoon, I watched a column of troopers from the 82nd Airborne march down Bourbon Street, which was empty . . . save for the occasional hotel worker hosing down the sidewalk,” he wrote. “It can be said absent slant, ideology or opinion that the security presence in much of central New Orleans is in response to lawlessness that no longer exists.”

    The cavalry had come, but far too late. And the whole world knew it.

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