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September 18, 2005 - Thursday Night as seen on Friday Morning

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From the White House site this is the transcript: President Discusses Hurricane Relief in Address to the Nation, Jackson Square, New Orleans, Louisiana, Thursday, September 15, 2005, 8:02 pm CDT - and some of us watched it.

This was the speech that was to save the president's political bacon after the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

We're going to get the biggest reconstruction project the world has ever seen, because we care, and so on and so forth. Lots of initiatives, the locals get their say, we'll make the whole place better than before - that sort of thing. No mention of how we'll pay for it. Float more debt when the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have racked up more than two hundred billion and counting, and the tax cuts for the wealthy have cut federal revenue by more than a third on the hope the fat cats would goose the economy by spending it all wisely, and the federal deficit skyrockets to levels never seen before? He didn't say. Folks are calling for winding down the wars and saving the bucks for use here, for rolling back the tax cuts the rich, if not increasing their taxes, for stopping this nonsense about abolishing the estate tax so the ultra-wealthy can pass along every single penny, untaxed, to their heirs - for many things. Since no ideas like that were mentioned, one must assume we just issue more bonds and hope the Chinese and all the rest will keep buying them. We may have to offer more return on investment - higher interest rates - but they'll keep buying, won't they? Our children's children can deal with the debt.

Reactions? On PBS, one could watch David Brooks on the right and Tom Oliphant on the left actually agree. Nice ideas, but how are we going to do this without thinking about how the whole government is being run and to what end? If this is going to cost two or three hundred billion shouldn't we think of the interrelationship of this project to the war "project" to the tax codes to what we do about healthcare with the forty-five million uninsured, to the four-year rise in poverty rates and four-year drop in real income for most Americans, and all the rest? Nice ideas. No context. And there's the whole question of whether this current crew has the managerial ability to pull this off. No one has seen it. And on MSNBC you could watch Tucker Carlson say the conservatives would eat Bush alive for this speech where Bush sounded more like LBJ or FDR with all this throw-money-at-the-problem stuff. For those government-is-the-problem guys, this is something like heresy.

But the man was trapped by events, and the speech was for show. The polls numbers - depending on the poll a record-low thirty-six to forty-two percent approval rating - determined the content of the speech.

As Bill Montgomery over at Whisky Bar puts it


There's no point in parsing every point in Shrub's big speech last night - not when we've learned, through bitter experience, that there's rarely a connection between the real world and the text on his teleprompter.
Bush said all the things he was expected to say, and very few that he wasn't. He ran down the laundry list of relief supplies provided and federal agencies mobilized. He heroically declared that New Orleans would rise again. He promised to open up Uncle Sam's checkbook and keep writing and signing checks until his fingers were worn down to bloody stumps. And of course, his text was sprinkled with the obligatory heartwarming anecdotes about the courage, generosity and plucky optimism of the local residents - none of whom were raped, spent three days sitting in their own shit, or had shots fired over their head as they tried to escape to the white side of the Mississippi River.

Naturally, a lot of it was self-serving spin (what does a "normal" hurricane look like, anyway?) and a lot of it sounded like a Heritage Foundation seminar on enterprise zones. Also as predicted. The acceptance of presidential responsibility sounded even more insincere than it did the first time around - probably because he's been practicing how to say it without staring off into the middle distance, like a sullen teenager ordered to apologize to his father.


Was the man was trapped by events, and the speech for show? Note this from NBC news anchor Brian Williams in his web log:


I am duty-bound to report the talk of the New Orleans warehouse district last night: there was rejoicing (well, there would have been without the curfew, but the few people I saw on the streets were excited) when the power came back on for blocks on end. Kevin Tibbles was positively jubilant on the live update edition of Nightly News that we fed to the West Coast. The mini-mart, long ago cleaned out by looters, was nonetheless bathed in light, including the empty, roped-off gas pumps. The motorcade route through the district was partially lit no more than 30 minutes before POTUS drove through. And yet last night, no more than an hour after the President departed, the lights went out. The entire area was plunged into total darkness again, to audible groans. It's enough to make some of the folks here who witnessed it... jump to certain conclusions.


No kidding. New Orleans as a Potemkin Village? You remember Prince Grigory Potemkin had fake villages constructed on the shores of the Dnieper River in order to impress the Czarina Catherine during an official inspection tour. That's where we get the term. Same thing.

The first reaction received here in Hollywood was from Marc Schulman. Who's he? A former Wall Street man, retired to Florida, who blogs at "American Future" - a very conservative (old style) Republican. He wrote last week and said he really liked my Status of the Blame Game essay, in spite of our different politics. We traded a few emails and we crosslink now. I'm on his mailing list. He sends us all his reaction, as he was reminded of Vietnam so long ago. –


An increasingly unpopular war. A growing credibility gap. A rapid growth in spending on domestic social programs. That's what was happening in America in early 1968. Public support for the war in Vietnam, which had been gradually eroding before the Tet offensive, collapsed in its aftermath. Tet was a military victory for the American military, but a psychological defeat for the American public. Televised pictures of the Viet Cong attacking the US embassy in Saigon destroyed the credibility of the Johnson administration's claim that there was light at the end of the tunnel. And while this was taking place, spending on Great Society programs was skyrocketing.

Now fast forward to the present. Once again, we have an increasingly unpopular war. We also have a credibility gap. This time, the gap isn't related to the war - Bush has never tried to sustain support for the war by promising an early withdrawal from Iraq. Instead, today's credibility gap is the result of the mismanagement of the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina. As memories of 9/11 faded, out-of-sight, out-of-mind prevailed. With Katrina, heads have come out of the sand, as it's now abundantly evident that the US isn't prepared to cope with the aftermath of an act of catastrophic terrorism. Four years after 9/11, the ability of the federal government to provide security has now been called into question. As a perception-changing event, Katrina is to Bush as Tet was to Johnson. And the massive spending that will be required to undo the damage done by Katrina is to Bush as the Great Society was to Johnson.

Two months after Tet, Johnson announced that he would not stand for re-election. Eight months later, control of the White House passed into Republican hands, where it remained for 20 of the next 24 years. It's fortunate for today's Republicans that 2006 isn't a presidential election year.


I passed along the Schulman link to my friends and got this from Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis:


• Sure, blame the public for the politicians' failure.

• The Viet Cong pointed to the left-field fence and said we're going to blast a triple home run over it.

• The US Military command in Saigon told the world's press corps that the Viet Cong claims were fantasy.

• On Tet the Viet Cong struck, where it said it would and everywhere, all over Vietnam.

• The US Military might contest the Tet victory, but the Viet Cong did what it said it was going to do. All the US military could do was react to it, not stop it from happening. This is what the US public realized. I maintain that Tet was a military and political defeat for the United States. It was a major factor causing the US withdrawal from Vietnam.

• I don't understand why the conservatives continue to insist that Tet was a victory for US forces. This kind of thinking leads to the situation in Iraq today, where US military force is hampered by fuzzy political convictions unrelated to reality. In short, the United States is conducting a mission of pure folly. The conservatives' plan is utter nonsense.

• Wonderful then the bungled response to Katrina. Too bad so many had to die or be uprooted from their homes. Too bad this happened, to be the only way to for the public to absorb the message that foreign and domestic policies are related. If Washington can't imagine that New Orleans' dikes would fail, how can it imagine that its so-called plans for Iraq will prevail?

• Meanwhile there is terrorism. The problem with it is the word describes tactics. Small, independent units choose an undefended target and attack it. 'They' will always choose undefended targets. It's not the kind of tactic that an army can defend against.

• Against the tactic of terrorism, strategic thinking is required. As they used to say in Vietnam, you have to win the minds and hearts of the opposition. You have to offer them a better future. To those simple minded souls in the White House 'democracy' might sound like a better future, but how do you sell it to people who haven't the faintest notion of what it is?

• Using the US military to promote democracy... well, it's very unlikely. If it's the best idea that Washington has, Americans should be dubious.

• And democracy. Do we know what it is? Is it real? Do the slogans match the reality? We can vote for democracy but what we eat are politics.

• And in Iraq? The way things are going my guess for a slogan would be: They can vote for tribes but what they will eat is religion.


I'm afraid I have to agree with my friend in Paris. We had Tet in 1968 - in 1954 they had Dien Bien Phu.

(Was Tet a military, as well as a political defeat for the United States, as Ric in Paris claims, or as Marc Schulman claims, a military victory for the American military, but a psychological defeat for the American public?  See the sidebar at the end.)

Be that as it may, over at TMP Café you can find "Swopa" asking some essential questions


• Do you trust this federal government, which has spent $200 billion in Iraq, was bragging up until a week before hurricane Katrina about how much it was spending on homeland security and emergency response, to spend this money wisely?

• Do you think we're getting a good return for our money in Iraq? Do you think we're getting a good return on that energy bill they passed? (Seen the price of gas lately?)

• The fact is, there hasn't been a cause or a crisis in the past four years that this federal government hasn't turned into a welfare bill for their campaign contributors. So there's every reason to think that if they're left to their own devices, the Bushites will come up with a rebuilding plan that leaves the ordinary people of Mississippi and Louisiana abandoned a second time.

• It's not that Democrats are opposed to the national government playing a major role - the problem is this federal government, which thinks the highest use of the public treasury is to give their campaign contributors the key to the vault. Democrats believe in using the government's powers to help ordinary people ... but we saw in the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center how this federal government responds to ordinary people in need.

• So, rather than oppose the spending, we should insist on oversight and open accounting so that the recovery program answers to the people it's supposed to help - just as the government must answer to them for its failure to provide help immediately after the hurricane.


That's unlikely to happen, given this from the New York Times two days before the speech:


Republicans said Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff and Mr. Bush's chief political adviser, was in charge of the reconstruction effort, which reaches across many agencies of government and includes the direct involvement of Alphonso R. Jackson, secretary of housing and urban development.


Oh great.  Josh Marshall, here:


Let's see. What was the problem with Michael Brown exactly? Let's see. No expertise or experience for the job. Got the gig because he was pals with Bush's political fixer. Also a political loyalist.

So to learn the lesson and get back on track, to run the recovery, President Bush picks Karl Rove.

That's great.

Do we really all need the paint by numbers version of this picture?

Then there's the president's great line from the speech: "It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces."

No, it's not. Actually, every actual fact that's surfaced in the last two weeks points to just the opposite conclusion. There was no lack of federal authority to handle the situation. There was faulty organization, poor coordination and incompetence.

Show me the instance where the federal government was prevented from doing anything that needed to be done because it lacked the requisite authority.

... You don't repair disorganized or incompetent government by granting it more power. You fix it by making it more organized and more competent. If conservatism can't grasp that point, what is it good for?
As for the military, same difference. The Army clearly has an important role to play in major domestic disasters. And they've been playing it in this case. But what broader role was required exactly?

As I've been saying, repressive governments mix administrative clumsiness and inefficiency with authoritarian tendencies. That's almost always the pattern. The direction the president wants to go in is one in which, in emergencies, the federal government will have trouble moving water into or enabling transportation out of the disaster zone but will be well-equipped to declare martial law on a moment's notice.

Another pack of lies. Right in front of everyone.

Here's a project.

Who will be the first and who will be the last to broach the subject of whether the president's chief political operative should be in charge of the largest domestic reconstruction effort since the Civil War.


Yeah, and won't it be odd if he's indicted and convicted in the business of the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame and has to manage the reconstruction of the lower right quadrant of the United States from his jail cell, like some Mafia don passing orders to his wise guys on the outside?


The staunchly conservative, formerly pro-Bush and openly gay Andrew Sullivan (yes, an odd mix) has this reaction:


THE TIPPING POINT? I guess I wasn't the only one who decided to skip watching the president live last night. Across the blogosphere, it seems as if many others decided to catch it later, or on the web, or just read the transcript. Why? Because I knew what was coming: an attempt at spiritual uplift, greased by billions and billions that we don't have, organized by a federal government that, under Bush, cannot seem to organize anything competently. I'm not saying we don't need to spend money on the reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. I'm saying I don't want to hear it from this guy. As a friend of mine commented last night over a drink, I don't hate this president and never have. I'm just sick of him. Sick of the naked politicization of everything (Karl Rove over-seeing reconstruction?); sick of the utter refusal to acknowledge that there is a limit to what the federal government can borrow from this and the next generation; sick of the hijacking of the conservative tradition for a vast increase in the power and size of government, with only a feigned attempt at making it more effective; sick of the glib arrogance and excuses for failure that dot the landscape from Biloxi to Basra. I'm not the only one. See here, here, here, here, here, and more generally here.

THE DISILLUSION: Maybe the fact that I once truly did buy into this makes me more jaundiced today. I really wanted the man to succeed; believed he could; and, given the stakes, I felt it was almost irresponsible not to support him in the war and defend him from his worst and least principled critics (most of whom still make me retch). If so, filter my current negativism through the prism of my previous enthusiasm. Maybe I'm over-reacting. But please don't ignore the facts: the biggest increase in federal government spending, debt and power since LBJ. Here's one tiny example of what we're seeing: hugely expensive trailer parks to create new federal ghettoes for evacuees. If that's why you're a conservative, fine. If you back this because the alternative is so awful, fine. Harry Reid's call for a Marshall Plan for the South was a healthy reminder that many Democrats are still even worse than this profligate crew. But please don't ask me to be enthusiastic about this. Buying popularity by spending billions was not why I originally became a conservative. Increasing the welfare state, burdening the future generations with mountainous debt, confusing politics with faith, failing to impose basic law and order as a primary responsibility for government: these things I thought were characteristics of the left. They now define the Bush administration. I became a conservative because I saw in my native country what a terrible, incompetent, soul-destroying thing big government socialism is. It breaks my heart to see much of it now being implemented in America - by Republicans.


But that's the way it is.

As Bill Montgomery over at Whisky Bar explains


Ever since the New Deal, successive GOP administrations have regarded the federal government as hostile territory to be occupied and, if possible, pacified. Under Nixon and, to a lesser degree, Reagan, cabinet secretaries were seen as unreliable, and prone to "go native" - especially since many of them were ideological moderates, who were appointed to mollify powerful interest groups with a vested interest in the status quo.
For conservatives, this made the White House the political equivalent of the Green Zone - a fortified command and control center beyond the reach of the insurgent bureaucrats. And out in the agencies, hard-edged conservative subcabinet appointees began to take on something of the role of political commissars in the Soviet military, monitoring both their nominal superiors and their career subordinates for signs of disloyalty.

... in the Cheney administration, policy, particularly domestic policy, is simply a basket of hot button issues - stem cells, climate change, grazing fees, wetlands regulation - that have to be managed on behalf of the various interest groups that make up the Republican coalition. Even the big domestic initiatives, like Social Security "reform," are treated more like election campaigns than serious policymaking exercises. (The one exception, energy policy, was controlled by Cheney, and was treated like a Soviet state secret.)

Outside of these political hot spots, the federal bureaucracy has been left floating in a vacuum - ignored not just by the Rovians and their pet president, but by the media, the public and, it seems, by many of the dispirited, apathetic career executives laboring under the hard-eyed scrutiny of their political commissars. Until the hurricane hit.


Did that change things? Montgomery reminds us that something like this might happen, by John DiIulio. That man was Bush's first faith-based initiatives guy, in charge of that whole effort. He just quit in frustration, calling the White House Team "Mayberry Machiavellis." The key passage from the famous Esquire article is this:


In eight months, I heard many, many staff discussions, but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions. There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues. There were, truth be told, only a couple of people in the West Wing who worried at all about policy substance and analysis, and they were even more overworked than the stereotypical, non-stop, 20-hour-a-day White House staff. Every modern presidency moves on the fly, but, on social policy and related issues, the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking - discussions by fairly senior people who meant Medicaid but were talking Medicare; near-instant shifts from discussing any actual policy pros and cons to discussing political communications, media strategy, et cetera. Even quite junior staff would sometimes hear quite senior staff pooh-pooh any need to dig deeper for pertinent information on a given issue.

... This gave rise to what you might call Mayberry Machiavellis - staff, senior and junior, who consistently talked and acted as if the height of political sophistication consisted in reducing every issue to its simplest, black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible. These folks have their predecessors in previous administrations (left and right, Democrat and Republican), but, in the Bush administration, they were particularly unfettered.


So someone saw a lack of even basic policy knowledge, and only casual interest in knowing more, years ago? DiIulio didn't need no hurricane to see it. The rest of the country did.

Also note this from DiIulio - how we actually got a department of Homeland Security –


Contrast that, however, with the remarkably slap-dash character of the Office of Homeland Security, with the nine months of arguing that no department was needed, with the sudden, politically-timed reversal in June, and with the fact that not even that issue, the most significant reorganization of the federal government since the creation of the Department of Defense, has received more than talking-points caliber deliberation. This was, in a sense, the administration problem in miniature: Ridge was the decent fellow at the top, but nobody spent the time to understand that an EOP entity without budgetary or statutory authority can't "coordinate" over 100 separate federal units, no matter how personally close to the president its leader is, no matter how morally right they feel the mission is, and no matter how inconvenient the politics of telling certain House Republican leaders we need a big new federal bureaucracy might be.


As Montgomery says –


... the Rovians have constructed is a kind of comic opera caricature of a totally politicized one-party state: Joe Stalin meets Huey Long meets the Wizard of Oz - or at least, the little man behind the curtain. Previous GOP administrations only tried to control the federal bureaucracy; the Cheney administration has turned it into a running joke, like the Vogons in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Which would be pretty funny, if it weren't for all the casualties.


And now Karl Rove in is charge, and George Bush is forgiven.



The Vogons are a fictional alien race in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams:


Here's what to do if you want to get a lift from a Vogon: forget it. They are one of the most unpleasant races in the galaxy. Not actually evil, but bad tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous. They wouldn't even lift a finger to save their own grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without orders signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public enquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters. The best way to get a drink out of a Vogon is stick your finger down his throat, and the best way to irritate him is to feed his grandmother to the ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal.


Adams also tells us that far back in prehistory, when the first primeval Vogons crawled out of the sea, the forces of evolution were so disgusted with them that they never allowed them to evolve again. Somehow, though, the Vogons survived, wrecked the planet, and emigrated en masse to the Brantisvogon star cluster, where they form most of the Galactic bureaucracy, most notably in the famous Vogon Constructor Fleets (which allows them a socially-acceptable way to spend their time demolishing things).

See this for more.

Montgomery's comparison works for me.


Sidebar: Was Tet a military, as well as a political defeat for the United States, as Ric in Paris claims, or as Marc Schulman claims, a military victory for the American military, but a psychological defeat for the American public.

Noted at Marc Schulman's "American Future" here:


In a post at As Seen From Just Above Sunset, Rick Erickson disputes my assertion that Tet was a military victory for the American military. He maintains that Tet was a military, as well as a political defeat for the United States. Then, for good measure, he throws this into the mix: "I don't understand why the conservatives continue to insist that Tet was a victory for US forces."

Is it only conservatives who make this claim? Erickson would do well to consult Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History , which was published in 1983. Karnow is a Pulitzer Prize winner; his book was a companion to PBS's American Experience Series. For Erickson's benefit, here are three key paragraphs from Karnow (pages 557-558 in the 1997 edition):


If the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies were napping before the Tet upheaval, the Communists also blundered. "We have been guilty of many errors and shortcomings," their first official evaluation of the campaign confessed. They deplored such deficiencies as their failure to inspire the South Vietnamese population to rebel, and their inability to rally Saigon soldiers and government employees to their banners. Numbers of North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops were plainly disenchanted by the realization that, despite their enormous sacrifices during the offensive, they still faced a long struggle ahead. Senior Communist cadres expressed alarm at the erosion of morale among their comrades, many of whom had "lost confidence" in the cause, and had become "doubtful of victory and pessimistic, and display shirking attitudes."

Tran Van Tra, a senior Communist general in the south at the time, candidly admitted in a military history published in Hanoi in 1982 that the offensive had been misconceived from the start. "During Tet of 1968," he wrote, we did not correctly evaluate the specific balance of forces between ourselves and the enemy, did not realize that the enemy still had considerable capabilities and that our capabilities were limited." The Communists had set objectives "that were beyond our actual strength," founded "in part on our subjective desires." Thus, Tra went on, "we suffered large losses in materiel and manpower, especially cadres at various echelons, which clearly weakened us." As a result, "we were not only unable to retain the gains we had made but had to overcome a myriad of difficulties in 1969 and 1970 so that the revolution could stand firm in the storm."

Revisiting Vietnam after the war, I was astonished by the number of Communist veterans who retained bad memories of the Tet episode ¿ and openly recalled to me their disappointment at its outcome …


Not even the North Vietnamese believed that they had scored a military victory. I rest my case.


Also posted at the site, Ric's reply:


What Tet Won

Paris- Saturday, September 17 - Analysis of Tet by red generals is about as valuable as an analysis by General Westmoreland. As true Reds they were playing a traditional commie game called self-criticism. Even if they had scored a victory no one could deny they would have found fault with it.

Meanwhile in Washington, shortly after Tet, President Johnson asked Dean Acheson for a review of the war policy - after everybody else had put in their worthless two cents' worth.

Acheson tapped his contacts in DC and reported to Johnson that the military were attempting to reach an unachievable goal. He said the American public no longer believed anything he [Johnson] said, and the public had quit supporting the war. It wasn't news Johnson wanted to hear. He made an angry speech and the echo said the public was infuriated by his hint that they were unpatriotic. In sum, nobody except Washington was 'interested' in winning the war.

Three days after the speech Johnson recalled Westmoreland for talks, and decided not the send the extra 200,000 troops earlier thought necessary, as a reaction to Tet.

It is technically true that the Communist Tet offensive in late January of 1968 was not a static battle that the Reds won. It was a coordinated attack against 100 targets, mostly in areas where the Communists had not before been militarily active. The ferocity of the attack, even on the US Embassy in Saigon, stunned TV viewers in the United States. Hue fell to the Viet Cong. The fighting lasted a month and launched a debate in Washington.

The remark that characterized the war was first heard - "It becomes necessary to destroy the town in order to save it." The Wall Street Journal suggested that the 'effort' in Vietnam was 'doomed.' Tet succeeded as a shock tactic. It toppled Johnson.

You might think, after the war dragged on for another five years, killing many more Americans and Vietnamese, that Tet was failure. But history says it was the American Stalingrad in Vietnam. After Tet America was not going to prevail.


Should this difference in analysis of what happened continue, you can follow it at American Future.


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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