New Orleans—While George W. Bush circled in Air Force One, several hundred people gathered at Jackson Square, in the heart of the French Quarter, for a rally called “Stop the Flooding.” Many of those people were high school students from the Academy of the Sacred Heart, an historic Uptown and old-line Catholic girls’ school.

Shawn Holahan, a local attorney whose daughter is a sophomore at Sacred Heart, was the instigator for the demonstration, but she had willing accomplices among the faculty and the parents, who gave their (required) permission for their daughters to participate in this “field trip.”

“We’ve fallen off the national radar,” Holahan told reporters, referring to the still sluggish federal response to the disaster Hurricane Katrina left in her wake. “The president’s visit gives us an opportunity to let him know we are still here and we still need help.”

Organizers earnestly promoted “Stop the Flooding” as a non-partisan rally. Their numero uno ground rule, disseminated via Internet, was: “No politics. The only issue for this demonstration is Category 5 levees AND coastal restoration. No anti-Bush; no pro-Bush; no anti-Iraq; no pro-Iraq. No politics. Just pure focus on the need for Category 5 levees AND coastal restoration.” And the vast majority of the hand-painted poster-board signs said just that.

“Party Affiliation: Louisianian” was another popular slogan. And there was a lone “We Can’t All Live in a Yellow Submarine,” and a single churlish but accurate “The President Went to New Orleans and All I Got Was Lousy Promises.” Non–Catholic schoolgirls sported freshly silk-screened T-shirts that read “Make Levees, Not War.” A tourist from Holland had draped a Monday Night Football–quality banner, red words on white, that said “Go Dutch, Do Not Scrimp.” It was appreciated, but a local told her, ” ‘Going Dutch’ means something different here.”

The stress on top-shelf levees Siamese-twinned-at-the-heart with coastal restoration is the major message these folks want to send to W., and to the nation. They are saying, simply, though I’m sure the girls of Sacred Heart would never put it this way, “It’s fucked up down here. It’s complex. And putting things right ain’t gonna be cheap.”

What the girls of Sacred Heart are saying for themselves, they are chanting, like the biggest cheerleader squad you’ve ever seen: “Category five to survive!” “N-O-L-A, make our levees safe today!” And another one that I could never understand the beginning of, but it ended up rhyming “our generation” with “coastal restoration.”

W., meanwhile, didn’t have a chance to see these young girls, and old hippies, and neo-hippie-activists-in-the-making, and the usual malcontents who remember COINTELPRO, and the general riffraff that are always drawn to public demonstrations of any kind, especially the bloody and gruesome—like reporters. He never had any intention of seeing this tableau of democracy in action.

That’s not his bag. “Stop the Flooding” featured real people wanting to talk to their president about real things. But that’s not his bag either. Too risky. Better to talk to folks who don’t have a gag reflex or a laughing fit when he talks about how well things are going in Iraq, and other subjects he is prone to mangling.

Better to just meet the mayor and some businessmen in private and then helicopter over to Mississippi, where the crowd is handpicked, expert in lockstep following, and trained to break into applause on command.

Ironically, “Stop the Flooding” was the kind of demonstration where the crowd would have gone easy on W., or at least have been polite, but even hazarding that is too big a risk for our president who would be king. His loss, of course. And ours too, which hurts more.