CNN's Cooper: Bush's Katrina defense 'boggles the mind'

David Edwards and Muriel Kane
Published: Tuesday January 13, 2009

George Bush still seems to have no clue as to how seriously he failed the nation after Huricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, even though two of his aides have called it a "tipping point" in his presidency and "the final nail in the coffin" that broke his bond with the American public.

When asked at his final presidential news conference on Monday about what mistakes were made during his presidency, Bush suggested first that "putting a 'Mission Accomplished' on a aircraft carrier was a mistake" and then added, "I've thought long and hard about Katrina, you know, could I have done something differently, like land Air Force One either in New Orleans or Baton Rouge."

"Think about this for a second," commented MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. "President Bush thought long and hard about Katrina, and what he came up with was -- maybe I could have done the photo op differently."

Bush went on to insist, "Don't tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed. I remember going to see those helicopter drivers, Coast Guard drivers, to thank them for their courageous efforts to rescue people off roofs."

Maddow, however, pointed out that even thought the Coast Guard responded promptly, National Guard troops took two days to arrive and FEMA took six days just to finalize its request for evacuation buses.

CNN's Anderson Cooper -- who reported memorably on Katrina's devastation as it was happening -- also was astonished by Bush's response.

"It's sort of a red herring to talk about the flyover," Cooper suggested. "To talk about what the Coast Guard did, which was valiant and courageous and brilliant, and totally forget about ... on Friday, days after the storm had passed, not even remembering people in the convention center -- it just boggles the mind."

Analyst David Gergen agreed with Cooper, calling Bush's response on Katrina "the most stunning thing, I think, that happened in the press conference."

"I thought maybe that people would have some sense of warmth about George Bush as he leaves office," Gergen continued. "I think I was wrong. ... I don't think we've had a time since Richard Nixon left office ... when people were so relieved to see the end of a presidency."

"The city's still not rebuilt," added New York Daily News columnist Errol Louis. "You had Brownie in charge of FEMA, but then [Bush] put his top political operative, Karl Rove, who was equally unqualified, to rebuild a major American city."

Maddow's guest, Jed Horne -- former city editor of the New Orleans Time-Picayune and author of Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City" -- was also struck by the politicization of the response to Katrina.

"As the blowback to Bush became deeply embarrassing to the administration, everything became political," Horne noted. "To this day, a very toxic kind of partisanship has shaped the federal involvement in the Katrina mess -- and it remains a mess."

As an example of politicization, Horne pointed to the disparities in treatment between Louisiana, which then had a Democratic governor, and Mississippi, led by Republican stalwart Haley Barbour. There were "proportionately huge amounts more of money heaped on Mississippi per capita than on Louisiana," Horne noted, "despite the far greater need ... the far greater devastation."

Horne added that, although some improvements have been made to the levee system since 2005, the Bush administration has committed only to protect the city from a hundred-years storm -- even though Katrina was a 300-year storm and is far from the worst that could happen. In the Netherlands, where devastating floods struck in 1953, the coastline is now defended at the 10,000-year level.

"The Dutch, and people like that who take flood defense really quite seriously, are flabbergasted by this sort of feckless, lackadaisical response," Horne concluded.

This video is from MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, broadcast Jan. 12, 2009.

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