Thursday, August 24, 2006
You can see why TV loves this story (the guy's named 'Rockey,' for cryin' out loud!), because to those who pay casual attention, i.e., the vast majority of viewers, the parallels to another news story are striking.
It was exactly one year ago that the headlines were all about Bush, on another lengthy vacation in Crawford, refusing to meet with an average American who was devastated by a tragedy -- Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq. It was a publicity bloodbath, and it rolled right into the horrors of Katrina and a seemingly indifferent White House, beginning the long slide in Bush's approval rating.
Now comes Rockey, a plain-talking character who lost it all in Katrina, who nearly died in the hurricane, forced to hang onto a rope for four hours (some of that was captured on film), and now wants to government to do more for Katrina victims. And what a difference a year makes -- not only did Bush, not in Crawford but hard at work in the White House, meet with this "average American," but check out the glowing praise our president received in return.
First, here's the way that the media spun the meeting: A triumph for the little guy:
CNN's RICK SANCHEZ: I don't know if you were watching a couple days ago, but you might remember that we talked to a man named Rockey Vaccarella. I got a lot of phone calls on this interview. He's a Katrina victim who was driving to the White House with a FEMA trailer. And he seemed to strike a nerve with people. He's there now. He's actually been invited inside. He wanted to go and met with the president. Well, guess what, the president has decided to meet with him. Last night he met with Donald Powell (ph), the government's point man for rebuilding the Gulf Coast. Told him just what he and his family went through during Katrina.
A minute later:
SANCHEZ: And amazing his persistence because he was originally told that the president was just busy. Look, he's not going to be able to meet with you.
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: He's like, that's all right. I'm still going.
SANCHEZ: I'm going to hang out there.
O'BRIEN: I've driven all this way.
SANCHEZ: He was confident when he told us that the president would come out and find a way to talk to him.
Here's so here's what Rockey told the nation just now on TV:
You know, it's really amazing when a small man like me from St. Bernard Parish can meet the President of the United States. The President is a people person. I knew that from the beginning. I was confident that I could meet President Bush.
And my mission was very simple. I wanted to thank President Bush for the millions of FEMA trailers that were brought down there. They gave roofs over people's head. People had the chance to have baths, air condition. We have TV, we have toiletry, we have things that are necessities that we can live upon.
But now, I wanted to remind the President that the job's not done, and he knows that. And I just don't want the government and President Bush to forget about us. And I just wish the President could have another term in Washington.
This guy is a symbol of the misery that so many people in Louisiana and Mississippi? If we didn't know any better, this couldn't have been more of home run for Bush if the whole thing had been set up by Karl Rove.
In fact, we had a hunch -- that maybe, just maybe, Rockey Vaccarella had a background himself in GOP politics.
And, whaddya know? Turns out that the earthy Vaccarella -- a highly successful businessman in the fast-food industry -- is indeed a Republican pol, having run unsuccessfully under the GOP banner for a seat on the St. Bernard Parish commission back in 1999. We don't have a good link, but here (via Nexis) is part of his bio that ran in the New Orleans Times-Picayune on Oct. 15, 1999:
35. Born in New Orleans. Grew up in Arabi and Chalmette. Lived 11 years in
Married, two children.
Graduated from Chalmette High, 1982. Attended St. Bernard Community
Director of operations, Lundy Enterprises, as manager of 31 Pizza Hut
restaurants and 450 employees. Former general restaurant manager of Popeye's Chicken & Biscuits on East Judge Perez Drive in Chalmette.
And in fact, Vaccarella seemed very confident that he would be meeting with Bush when he left home, to the point where he had a date scheduled and everything:
Dinner with the President is planned for the evening of August 22nd.
As it turned out, dinner last night was with the White House aide running Katrina relief, and he met Bush at the White House today. Close enough. Before he left Louisiana earlier this month, Vaccarella made it clear that he's no Cindy Sheehan:
"We want to thank President Bush and the American people for everything they have done so far for south Louisiana and the Gulf Coast region but, to remind everyone that the job is not complete and to please do whatever is possible to help clean-up and re-build so our people can return home."
Shouldn't the media be a tad more skeptical about events like these? And isn't the fact that Vaccarella was once a Republican candidate for office a relevant fact that should be mentioned, to help viewers place his effusive, nationally televised praise in context. With Vaccarella the "Katrina soundbite" of the day, TV is not reporting this:
The job of clearing debris left by the storm remains unfinished, and has been plagued by accusations of fraud and price gouging. Tens of thousands of families still live in trailers or mobile homes, with no indication of when or how they will be able to obtain permanent housing. Important decisions about rebuilding and improving flood defenses have been delayed. And little if anything has been done to ensure the welfare of the poor in a rebuilt New Orleans.
This is a White House that has pledged, as you recall, "create our own reality," and they're doing it again. How many times we will in the media act as Charlie Brown, kicking with futility at the phony football that Rove and this White House hold out for us, again and again and again.more from Holden, including a very interesting shot of Rockey's FEMA trailer, and a reporter who asked a real question.