As I was reading this article about Sen. Mary Landrieu’s criticism of the Bush administrations post-Katrina bungling (I was a bit critical of her earlier, but she’s found her voice since), this statement from Sen. Barak Obama struck me as strangely familiar.
Obama was asked on ABC’s "This Week" whether there was racism in the lack of evacuation planning for poor, black residents of New Orleans. He said he would not refer to the government response in that way, but said there was a much deeper, long-term neglect.
"Whoever was in charge of planning was so detached from the realities of inner city life in New Orleans … that they couldn’t conceive of the notion that they couldn’t load up their SUV’s, put $100 worth of gas in there, put some sparkling water and drive off to a hotel and check in with a credit card," Obama said.
"There seemed to be a sense that this other America was somehow not on people’s radar screen. And that, I think, does have to do with historic indifference on the part of government to the plight of those who are disproportionately African-American." He added that "passive indifference is as bad as active malice." (emphasis added)
I had to dig a little bit to find where it was I’d read or heard something like that before. I had to go all the way back to this 2003 Moll Ivins’ article, from Mother Jones, but I found it.
The Reverend Jim Wallis, leader of Call to Renewal, a network of churches that fight poverty, told the New York Times that shortly after his election, Bush had said to him, "I don’t understand how poor people think," and had described himself as a "white Republican guy who doesn’t get it, but I’d like to." What’s annoying about Bush is when this obtuseness, the blinkeredness of his life, weighs so heavily on others, as it has increasingly as he has acquired more power. (emphasis added)
Along those same lines, Obama observed the reality that seemingly no one in the administration could conceive that there were people who couldn’t just load the family in to the car (or SUV) and check in to a hotel somewhere on high ground. Beyond not understanding "how poor people think," the president has no concept of the realities of millions of working Americans’ lives. (And, remember, a lot of those left to fend for themselves in Katrina’s wake are working Americans, but are among the working poor.) He’s surrounded himself with people who have a similar lack of any clue. Ivins notes that the administration is chock-full of "the sons of somebody-or-other,"usually children of privilege who, as Ivins says have never "held a job requiring physical labor." (And, no, clearing brush on the ranch doesn’t count.)
But it is not clear what President Bush does read or watch, aside from the occasional biography and an hour or two of ESPN here and there. Bush can be petulant about dissent; he equates disagreement with disloyalty. After five years in office, he is surrounded largely by people who agree with him. Bush can ask tough questions, but it’s mostly a one-way street. Most presidents keep a devil’s advocate around. Lyndon Johnson had George Ball on Vietnam; President Ronald Reagan and Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, grudgingly listened to the arguments of Budget Director Richard Darman, who told them what they didn’t wish to hear: that they would have to raise taxes. When Hurricane Katrina struck, it appears there was no one to tell President Bush the plain truth: that the state and local governments had been overwhelmed, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was not up to the job and that the military, the only institution with the resources to cope, couldn’t act without a declaration from the president overriding all other authority.
…The denial and the frustration finally collided aboard Air Force One on Friday. As the president’s plane sat on the tarmac at New Orleans airport, a confrontation occurred that was described by one participant as "as blunt as you can get without the Secret Service getting involved." Governor Blanco was there, along with various congressmen and senators and Mayor Nagin (who took advantage of the opportunity to take a shower aboard the plane). One by one, the lawmakers listed their grievances as Bush listened. Rep. Bobby Jindal, whose district encompasses New Orleans, told of a sheriff who had called FEMA for assistance. According to Jindal, the sheriff was told to e-mail his request, "and the guy was sitting in a district underwater and with no electricity," Jindal said, incredulously. "How does that make any sense?" Jindal later told NEWSWEEK that "almost everybody" around the conference table had a similar story about how the federal response "just wasn’t working." With each tale, "the president just shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe what he was hearing," says Jindal, a conservative Republican and Bush appointee who lost a close race to Blanco. Repeatedly, the president turned to his aides and said, "Fix it."
,,,Late last week, Bush was, by some accounts, down and angry. But another Bush aide described the atmosphere inside the White House as "strangely surreal and almost detached." At one meeting described by this insider, officials were oddly self-congratulatory, perhaps in an effort to buck each other up. Life inside a bunker can be strange, especially in defeat.
Benign as it may be, we know now that passive indifference that Obama noted becomes malignant in a moment of crisis when it is manifest in one who’s supposed to be a leader. Bush may be, as the song goes, a good ol’ boy who’s "never meaning no harm," but the record of what’s happened on his is another reality.
It’s been said, by whom I don’t remember, that the difference between Bush and Clinton is that Clinton would have been at the command center during the storm, and wading through the flood waters in hip boots as soon as the storm passed, feeling everybody’s pain. But Clinton would have gotten it, because he didn’t come from Bush’s privileged background and thus would have known there would be people who wouldn’t have the resources to get out.
But we don’t have Clinton, or anyone else in a leadership position who "gets it." We have a self-described "white Republican guy who doesn’t get it." And a president "not getting it" costs lives; in this case the lives of decidedly non-white, non-Republican men, women, and children.
He still doesn’t "get it," and in five years there’s little indication that he’s even trying to "get it." . And, if you ask me, that’s what Kayne West was talking about when he says "Bush doesn’t care about black people." Only it’s not just black people, it’s poor black people or anyone else who happens to be poor and another color. Todd of The Blue State points to Kayne’s recent statement on Ellen Degeneres’ show.
"Back in the days when it was time to clean the kitchen I would try to sweep the dust under the kitchen sink instead of really taking care of it, and if you spilled something on that floor all that dust came right up in front of your face. That’s basically what the flood did. …They have been trying to sweep us (African-Americans) under the kitchen sink and it was so in people’s faces and so on TV… that they couldn’t even hide it any more. …Down there, people are living below the poverty level to start off with, before this happened. …A year ago I was on tour with Usher and we had a hurricane hit Florida and everybody was saying, ‘If this hurricane went to Louisiana, if it went to Mississippi, they wouldn’t be able to handle it.’ (That was) a year ago – and there was nothing done about it."
Kayne gets it. Bush doesn’t care because he doesn’t get it. If he got it, he’d care. But he doesn’t care to get it. It’s not an active hatred. It’s a "passive indifference.’ Unfortunately, it’s recently proven as deadly as active hatred.