THE CLOSEST President Bush ever came to admitting that his administration had blown it was in 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The rupture of the New Orleans levees caused a crisis far beyond what state and local governments could handle, but for days federal agencies did little to help out. Amid withering criticism, Bush said he took responsibility, "to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right."
To the extent that this was an apology, Bush has all but taken it back. After his administration moved quickly to help with relief and firefighting efforts in California last week, the president took a cheap shot at Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco. "It makes a significant difference," Bush said, in an appearance with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, "when you have somebody in the State House willing to lead."
The argument against Blanco is that she didn't do enough to evacuate people before the storm or to speed rescue efforts afterward. Blanco, to be sure, didn't exactly come off as steadfast. Even so, more than a million residents cleared out of greater New Orleans before Katrina. Blanco lacked the authority to summon National Guard units from surrounding states. And she wasn't the one who lauded Michael Brown, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's incompetent, self-involved chief, for doing a "heck of a job" when he plainly wasn't.
Bush's jab also chooses to ignore the differences between hurricanes and West Coast fires. In California, a "reverse-911" alert system speeded evacuation from homes on the exurban fringe. In New Orleans, flooded roads were impassable, and phone and power networks were down for weeks.
It's too easy to accuse communities of doing too little to protect themselves from disasters. Though forest fires are common in Southern California, San Diego voters decided a few years back not to raise taxes to improve fire protection. So they should suffer because they're too cheap to pay for their own safety? Nonsense. Federalism doesn't mean leaving people to their fate in times of need.
It's gratifying to see federal agencies reacting more nimbly in California; it means they've learned from Katrina. But how much? At a press conference last week, public relations staffers at FEMA posed as reporters and asked sycophantic questions of an agency official. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff denounced the stunt, but it's no longer surprising when FEMA puts propaganda before helping people.
Then again, that same spin-centric worldview pervades the administration as a whole. To paraphrase Bush, it would make a significant difference if you had somebody in the White House willing to rise above cheap politics when life is at risk.