This administration is serious about its backdrops. When President Bush addresses the nation, he's usually in front of his Oval Office window or a banner proclaiming the message of the day.
Last night, he stood in New Orleans's Jackson Square, wearing blue shirtsleeves that blended almost perfectly into the blue-lit statue and cathedral behind him. His head looked disembodied. His mouth struggled to maintain a frown.
The White House is scrambling, and the images prove it.
Bush has never looked fully comfortable on television, but there have been moments, many of them, when his cowboy demeanor has been a selling point. Blue-state stalwarts might think otherwise, but in places like Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, his defiance and dead-or-alive rhetoric -- even his trademark half-smirk -- are often taken as signs of strength.
But retreat to the Texas vernacular, so useful in cases of terror or war, only served, after Hurricane Katrina, to underscore the government's incompetence. A nation's worth of pundits roared, days after the storm, when Bush told not-yet-deposed FEMA chief Michael Brown, ''Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." The polls spoke even more loudly.
Now, ''Brownie" is gone and the White House has realized, some two weeks into the crisis, that contrition is in order. So Bush read uncomfortably from his Teleprompter last night, without any sign of swagger. It wasn't a portrait of sympathy; Bush doesn't do pain-sharing, the way Bill Clinton did so glibly and so often. This was president as general contractor. It was president as telethon chairman, repeating a 1-800 number.
Appearing in New Orleans was surely meant as a gesture of confidence -- especially since Bush spoke from the relatively unscathed heart of the French Quarter, as opposed to one of the storm-ravaged neighborhoods we've seen so much. But the eerie stillness around him spoke volumes. Under normal circumstances, Jackson Square is never empty, quiet, or controlled.
Maybe that's fitting; out in the open air, Bush wasn't able to remain completely formal, anyway. He couldn't stop himself from dropping ''g's," as in, ''agricultural shipments are movin' down the Mississippi River." And he seemed most at ease when he slipped away from formality altogether, quoting a man from Biloxi, Miss., who had lost much in the storm: ''I still got my family, and I still got my spirit."
Compared to crisis speeches past, though, Bush was holding back; he introduced no simple catchphrases, appropriated no ''Let's Roll's." And he didn't quote Professor Longhair or Dr. John or slip into New Orleans romanticism. His speechwriters chose their metaphors carefully, settling on the second-line, the joyful trademark dance of a jazz funeral. It was as hopeful, and dark, as the circumstances demanded.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.