Friday, September 16, 2005
There's no point in parsing every point in Shrub's big speech last night -- not when we've learned, through bitter experience, that there's rarely a connection between the real world and the text on his teleprompter.
Bush said all the things he was expected to say, and very few that he wasn't. He ran down the laundry list of relief supplies provided and federal agencies mobilized. He heroically declared that New Orleans would rise again. He promised to open up Uncle Sam's checkbook and keep writing and signing checks until his fingers were worn down to bloody stumps. And of course, his text was sprinkled with the obligatory heartwarming anecdotes about the courage, generosity and plucky optimism of the local residents -- none of whom were raped, spent three days sitting in their own shit, or had shots fired over their head as they tried to escape to the white side of the Mississippi River.
Naturally, a lot of it was self-serving spin (what does a "normal" hurricane look like, anyway?) and a lot of it sounded like a Heritage Foundation seminar on enterprise zones. Also as predicted. The acceptance of presidential responsibility sounded even more insincere than it did the first time around -- probably because he's been practicing how to say it without staring off into the middle distance, like a sullen teenager ordered to apologize to his father.
In the end, there were only three points about the speech that seemed significant to me -- two of them being things Bush said, and one being something he didn't talk about at all.
The first was Bush's admission that race is an issue, both in the disaster and the recovery:
As all of us saw on television, there's also some deep, persistent poverty in this region, as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.
Would I have liked to heard more -- such as an acknowledgment that most folks who failed to evacuate stayed behind because they were too poor or too scared to leave, not because they "lacked native judgement"? Yes. Do I think Bush was sincere about confronting poverty with "bold" action? No. Saying that "we" have a duty doesn't say much. "We" could be anybody or everybody. When Bush says clearly the federal government has an obligation to fight poverty -- or at least to make sure that others have the tools to fight it -- then I'll believe him. Maybe.
All that said, I still appreciate the fact that he raised the issue. And the next time some mouth-breather at Free Republic starts ranting about the goddamned welfare queens in New Orleans, or a pseudointellectual twit starts babbling infantile nonsense about "tribes," I hope somebody will let them know their beloved president disagrees with them.
Unfortunately, one of Bush's Heritage Foundation-on-steroids proposals immediately made me wonder if I was being too generous in giving him any credit at all for sincerity. I'm talking about his proposal to resettle poor folks on surplus federal property:
Under this approach, we will identify property in the region owned by the federal government, and provide building sites to low-income citizens free of charge, through a lottery. In return, they would pledge to build on the lot, with either a mortgage or help from a charitable organization like Habitat for Humanity.
Yes, home ownership is a good thing -- although whether Habitat for Humanity or subsidized low-income mortgage programs (like the ones run by Fannie and Freddie) would be able to help more than a fraction of the lucky winners is another story. And if this is going to turn into another scam for the subprime lending industry, well, there isn't a griddle in hell hot enough for Rovian butts.
But the real question is where these "surplus" federal properties are located. Is this lottery idea the thin end of a policy wedge designed to relocate the low-income neighborhoods of the 9th Ward to former Army bases deep in the Louisiana back country? Are the Rovians testing out a Heritage wonk's bright new idea, or clearing the way for the great New Orleans land rush?
If that sounds like rampant paranoia, just remember who we're dealing.
The final thing I noticed was what I didn't notice -- any mention of the destructive environmental policies that are causing South Lousiana to slide into the Gulf of Mexico (or the Gulf of Mexico to slide over South Lousiana).
Amid Shrub's "bold" talk about rebuilding the levees (note that he said the rebuilt system would be "stronger than it's ever been," not "strong enough to survive a direct hit by another Category 4 hurricane") I heard no explanation of how these improvements will protect New Orleans if the city ends up as a polder island in the middle of a shallow lagoon. I'm not sure even the Dutch would be able to stormproof it then.
(Of course, Bush also didn't mention the risk that all that heroic work and all those federal dollars will eventually be washed away by a rapid rise in sea levels caused by global climate change. But then I was expecting a speech, not a miracle.)
Will the speech help the disaster recovery? (Bush's, I mean.) Perhaps -- depending on whether or not the Rovians have correctly read the public mood as supporting a massive federal spending binge to get New Orleans, and the Republican Party, back on their feet.
But even if they're right on that score, they should mind the old Chinese adage about being careful what you wish for. If they convince people that Bush finally has Katrina under control, they may divert their attention to more permanent disasters -- like Iraq.