HURRICANE KATRINA caused the greatest natural disaster in American history. President Bush couldn't change that. But Katrina also was a political disaster for the president. And Bush, given a year to think about it, realizes he could have avoided that.
What might the president have done differently? At least three things, starting with his decision two days after the levees broke--and New Orleans began to flood--to fly over the city in Air Force One without landing. Bush now knows he should have landed.
That he didn't a year ago was perfectly understandable. The New Orleans airport had only one runway open and it was clogged with planes bringing in emergency supplies to the city, 80 percent of which was under water. The president would have had to go by helicopter around the city and region, and all the choppers were still on rescue missions. And he might have gotten in the way of emergency crews.
Moreover, the Secret Service thought it was too dangerous in New Orleans for Bush to tour the damage. So Air Force One merely dipped to give Bush a look from the air and then flew on to Washington, leaving the impression that the president didn't care much about the plight of New Orleans, a predominantly black city, and its people.
In hindsight, Bush had another option which now seems obvious at the White House. He could have landed in New Orleans, stayed at the airport, talked to a few leaders and citizens, expressed his concern for the city and the entire region, and then flown to Washington without having interfered with emergency operations. His appearance on the ground would have prevented the unfair criticism that he'd settled for a fly-over because he didn't care about blacks.
A second avoidable mistake involved the reluctance of Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to declare a mandatory evacuation of the city. Federal emergency officials urged Nagin to evacuate the city before Katrina hit. Bush personally called the mayor on the morning of the hurricane to press him to require all residents to leave. However, the president did not go public with a plea for an immediate and full evacuation.
He should have. Bush and his aides realize he was far too deferential to Nagin and the governor. He should have lobbied them publicly, not just privately. This was a bit out of character for a president who believes in federal power and what it can achieve. Federalism and the law, though, left it to local and state officials to force an evacuation and manage it. They failed on both counts and made the bad situation in New Orleans breathtakingly worse.
Thirdly, the president held back from dispatching federal troops to New Orleans until Blanco asked for them. By that time, disorder had broken out in New Orleans and stories about murders and rapes at the Superdome--stories that turned out to be false--filled the news.
True, Bush was shackled by national law, which allows federal troops to be deployed only if there's an insurrection, which there wasn't, or the governor requests them, which Blanco was willing to do only if the troops were put under her command. This condition would have been unprecedented and was unacceptable to the White House and the Pentagon. She relented four days after the hurricane and requested the troops.
What might Bush have done in this instance instead of waiting for Blanco to change her mind? Go public. He could have all but demanded that the governor make a formal request. At the least, this would have put enormous pressure on Blanco to act--and act sooner.
Had Bush done these three things, as he should have, he would hardly have escaped criticism. After all, the Federal Emergency Management Administration was slow to act and proved to be unprepared and poorly led. And FEMA is part of the Bush administration. So Bush deserved some of the criticism.
Nagin deserved far more, according to Douglas Brinkley, the New Orleans historian and author of The Great Deluge, the definitive book (so far) on the hurricane and its aftermath. Brinkley is no apologist for Bush, having written a favorable biography of John Kerry in 2004. But he concluded that Nagin panicked and the city government all but collapsed. He also attacks Michael Chertoff, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, for allegedly failing to keep Bush fully informed about the magnitude of the calamity in New Orleans.
Nevertheless, the national media focused on Bush a year ago and focuses on him again today. There's little Bush can do about the media criticism and the partisan attacks by Democrats except what he's doing--spending two days in the Gulf region and talking up the progress. If only he landed in New Orleans that day a year ago . . .
Fred Barnes is executive editor at The Weekly Standard.