White House Letter: The politics of disaster: What's wanted of BushWASHINGTON When President George W. Bush toured the flattened Point Cadet neighborhood of Biloxi, Mississippi, to survey the damage from Hurricane Katrina on Friday, he was almost literally walking in the footsteps of another president, Richard Nixon. In 1969 Nixon had come to Gulfport, only 10 miles away, in the wake of the terror of Hurricane Camille.
Senator Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican, recalled to reporters before Bush's arrival that he had been in Gulfport for Nixon's visit that day, and the landing of Air Force One with the American flag on its tail "was one of the most beautiful things" he had ever seen. That visit nearly a quarter-century ago, he said, brought hope to the shattered residents, himself included.
"When the president comes, it's not about him," Lott said, as recounted in The Sun-Herald, the local newspaper. "Its about reassurances to the people."
Bush's visit to the area was not so simple. Not only was this president trying to comfort, he was seeking to reverse the impression that the U.S. government had failed in its response to Katrina's most desperate victims.
But his trip nonetheless illustrated the continuity in the way modern presidents react to natural disasters, and the hand-holding, coupled with direction and purpose, that Americans have come to expect from the occupants of the office during crisis.
"It's something that now, with instant communications, we really want from a president," said Michael Deaver, who was President Ronald Reagan's image czar. "It's something that the national psyche needs when there's a disaster, a threat, a trauma. We want somebody there to tell us we will survive, we will get through it. It's like I used to say of Reagan, he was America, and America was him. That's what we want."
Kenneth Duberstein, Reagan's last White House chief of staff, put it this way: "You've got to be both a rabbi and a priest ministering to the people, but also a chief executive who directs recovery and marshals resources. Everybody looks to the president at a moment of crisis, not to the Congress. And so you have to be that larger-than-life figure."
Whether Americans are satisfied they got all that from Bush in this crisis is unclear, as the president has come under extraordinary criticism from Democrats, Republicans, local officials and victims for his handling of the disaster.
In recognition of that, Bush turned around his hurricane rhetoric in a speech in the White House Rose Garden on Saturday. Rather than praising Republican politicians for their work in the region, as he did with Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi on Friday, Bush switched to a more personal acknowledgment that people were in pain and his administration had fallen short. Then he vowed to set things right.
"I know that those of you who have been hit hard by Katrina are suffering," Bush said. "Many are angry and desperate for help. The tasks before us are enormous, but so is the heart of America. In America, we do not abandon our fellow citizens in their hour of need."
But did his words come in time? Are they enough?
"These are the kinds of moments when a president gives voice to the country," said Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential biographer. "They're remembered forever, if it's done right."
In Goodwin's view, Abraham Lincoln did it right with the Gettysburg Address, as did Franklin D. Roosevelt when he asked Americans to buy maps and follow along with him as he explained the strategic World War II battle sites in a 1942 radio address. Reagan, she said, caught the moment when he eulogized the astronauts lost in the 1986 Challenger explosion. And so did Bush, she said, when he grabbed the bullhorn in the rubble of the World Trade Center in 2001, one of the most lasting images of his presidency.
This time, Goodwin said, "he may be able to say something good in the weeks ahead, but at least as it appears right now, that moment that calls for the president has passed."
White House officials and some of Bush's supporters disagreed, among them Torie Clarke, the former Pentagon spokeswoman, who said that "at a certain point here, people will realize that some awfully good efforts were made" and that "a lot of people did a hell of a good job."
For Clarke, the politics of natural disaster had a familiar ring, since it was almost exactly 13 years ago to the day that she was defending Bush's father against accusations that he had been slow in his response to Hurricane Andrew, which devastated South Florida.
In fact, when Bill Clinton, a presidential candidate at the time, said that efforts should be made to "look into" the problems that plagued disaster relief in Florida and Louisiana in 1992, Clarke, at that time a Bush campaign spokeswoman, retorted that Clinton was "trying to exploit what is a terrible situation for political gain" and "he should be ashamed of himself."
Clinton is now working with the first President Bush to raise private funds for Katrina victims. As for Clarke, she said that the change in intensity in the news media in the last 13 years - cable channels were broadcasting around-the-clock pictures of people dying in New Orleans last week - had sharply increased the demands on the president.
"People want and expect more of a personal connection," she said. "He has to be commander in chief, and he has to be holding those hands."