While a rising chorus in the press has taken the White House, FEMA, and the Pentagon to task for performing miserably in their response to the human disaster on the Gulf Coast, few have focused on the most telling aspect of the entire failure. It's not just incompetence. It's a shameful lack of concern: the 9/11 "My Pet Goat" dithering on an administration-wide scale.
Simply stated, the president and his top advisers chose vacation over action.
While the media has done a good job portraying the overall failure of leadership, it has not focused enough on this deadly dereliction of duty.
President Bush, in his weekly radio address last Saturday, said: "In America, we do not abandon our fellow citizens in their hour of need." But Bush, and his top aides, quite frankly, did just that.
I was reminded of this again on Saturday, seeing pictures of VicePresident Dick Cheney finally showing up at the White House after riding out the storm of the century in Wyoming. Perhaps he brought back with him a couple dozen trout to throw on the grill for the White House staffers.
This follows Bush himself remaining on vacation for more than two days after the storm hit, despite acknowledging this was the worst disaster in the nation's history. He did take a trip during those days, not back to Washington but out to San Diego to deliver a political speech comparing his Iraq war to World War II. It got little play because nearly everyone else in the country, beyond his inner circle, was focused on New Orleans.
What that trip did produce was a picture of Bush laughing with a country singer and strumming a guitar. But at least the president did start heading back to Washington late Wednesday. As he did, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was still enjoying her vacation in New York.
In fact, that night she enjoyed a few good yucks while attending the goofy Broadway play Spamalot. Ironically, the Bush team's performance this week did indeed seem like something out of a Monty Python skit. Each, in his or her own way, took a bunch of "silly walks."
Condi also played tennis with Monica Seles and on Thursday went on a shoe-shopping spree on Fifth Avenue until a fellow customer yelled at her for not doing her job and bloggers exposed all of this. Then she hurriedly headed back to Washington. Whoops, we then discovered she was overdue in getting a grip on offers to help that were pouring in from overseas governments and organizations.
And what of FEMA chief Michael Brown? He was so out-of-it that he didn't even know about the 10,000 evacuees living and dying at the Convention Center, even after they had received wide TV coverage for a solid day. The next day, the president greeted him with, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." A medal is surely on the way.
At a press conference on Thursday, the fourth day of the disaster, with newspapers and TV reporting tens of thousands stranded at hospitals, homes, and a highway overpass, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff was asked by a reporter if he thought only hundreds or maybe many more needed to be rescued. He replied: "I'd be guessing. I mean, a thousand seems like a very large number, but we have already rescued several thousand. Hopefully, most people have gotten themselves onto roofs and have been picked up."
At the same press briefing, Chertoff was asked if he thought there were enough soldiers on the ground to control the situation. His answer: "I'm satisfied that we have not only more than enough forces there and on the way. And frankly, what we're doing is we are putting probably more than we need in order to send an unambiguous message that we will not tolerate lawlessness or violence or interference with the evacuation."
While the 9/11 "My Pet Goat" episode was certainly illuminating, it's not certain what might have worked out better that day had the president dropped the book and taken action. But his failure to grab the reins in the hurricane catastrophe for three days last week probably doomed hundreds, or more, to death.
This is not mere incompetence but dereliction of duty. The press should call it by its proper name.