HURRICANE KATRINA is probably the worst natural disaster ever to befall the United States. Sadly, while people in this country and around the world have shown an admirable generosity toward the victims, this tragedy has also turned into one of the most sickening political spectacles in recent memory.
There has been the shockingly inept response from the government -- federal, state, and local -- and the ensuing blame-shifting and finger-pointing. This is the kind of massive, deer-in-the-headlights bungling that one would expect to see in Russia.
The political gamesmanship in Katrina's wake hasn't cost any lives -- but it has been repulsive nonetheless. While people were dying or trapped in hellish conditions, many on the left jumped with an indecent glee at the opportunity to blast their Great Satan, President Bush, and his evil reign.
Not that there weren't very good reasons to be harshly critical of Bush, whose response to the disaster was slow and often clueless and insensitive. But that's not enough for the Bush-bashers. Michael Moore, in an open letter to Bush on his website, fingers him as the cause of the disaster: He slashed funds for maintaining the levees in New Orleans, diverted to Iraq the National Guard troops that could have helped in the rescue, and blocked antiglobal warming measures. Others have echoed these charges. Never mind that no serious scientist believes Hurricane Katrina was related to global warming, that there were plenty of troops in nearby areas, they just didn't get to the scene fast enough, or that, according to The
Meanwhile, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman blames the disaster and its mishandling on conservative small-government ideology. Never mind that Bush, who has hiked domestic discretionary spending by 25 percent, is no more a small-government conservative than Bill Clinton was a socialist. And never mind that there was ample federal money going to Army Corps of Engineers projects in Louisiana, except that a lot of it went to costly boondoggles.
Then there's the most incendiary charge of all, leveled by Moore, Al Sharpton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and others: that Bush, and the powers that be in general, didn't care about the mostly black and poor victims in New Orleans because of racism. There is no question that poverty played a large role in the survivors' plight, or that there is still a strong linkage between race and class in America. But the leap from that to the charge of racism is irresponsible, to say the least.
For all the well-deserved criticism, let's not forget that on Aug. 28, Bush personally called Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to urge a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans. And let's not forget that the relief effort has been just as inadequate in predominantly white areas struck by the hurricane, such as Biloxi, Miss. (where survivors have complained about being ignored amid all the attention paid to New Orleans). Jefferson Parish, La., president Aaron Broussard, who broke down in tears on NBC's ''Meet the Press" as he pleaded for federal help, is white -- as are 75 percent of Jefferson Parish residents.
Not all of the political spin has been on the left. Some conservatives have been far too willing to let the federal government off the hook while justifiably pointing to the ineptitude of state and local authorities. Several conservative commentators, as well as Fox News host Brit Hume and correspondent Brian Wilson, repeated the erroneous or at least vastly exaggerated claim that Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation only at Bush's insistence. But right now, all that pales before the political hysteria and racial demagoguery on the Bush-hating left. And yes, if it were Kerry in the White House, the haters on the right would have been just as bad. That's cold comfort to those who would like to see human lives put before politics.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.