In Sunday's New York Times, Frank Rich's weekly essay was entitled "Has a 'Katrina Moment' Arrived?" Not only is this question quick and easy to answer, the question is a gross insult. The quick and easy answer?
To conflate the executive bonuses with Katrina is grotesque, and Rich knows better. What made Hurricane Katrina a "moment" was not the bad public relations the Bush Administration suffered or the silliness of praising "Brownie". It wasn't even that this marked the beginning of the end of Bush and the GOP to get anything meaningful accomplished despite their hold on power. Bush's record for idiotic behavior prior to Katrina was already astonishing, but post-9/11 fear had kept most of the public acquiescent to that point. With the hurricane, however, we saw the vivid reality of Bush incompetence, practiced and intentional, and for one simple reason, Katrina became a tipping point:
Hurricane Katrina killed nearly 2,000 people. Our tv screens showed bodies floating down the streets of the 9th Ward. We saw the poor and downtrodden herded like cattle into the Superdome with no assurance they'd even survive. We saw the President eating birthday cake and ignoring the deaths and suffering of these people. Sean Penn and the Coast Guard were able to help those left behind by an evacuation that Bush's intolerably inept FEMA managed to bungle even with several days' warning; FEMA's personnel seemed clueless about any part of the matter. Bush did a quick fly-by, then a series of photo ops, and made promises so empty that tens of thousands of New Orleans residents are likely never to return home.
Granted, the economic crisis we are now suffering is terrible, and it will result in people dying. But to equate the Obama Administration's handling of the bonuses with Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina is shameful. Bush sat back and let people die. Obama is taking action on the economy; it's just not the action a lot of people want him to take (most of the liberal writers at the NY Times apparently consider themselves far more qualified at this point to run the nation and are saying as much). Yes, people are angry and disgusted, and many are disappointed at the Administration's plans for dealing with both the short- and long-term economic difficulties. But to say this is the same as we felt as we watched the drowned bodies of grandmothers floating in New Orleans?
Frank Rich must surely know better.
The bonus problem is many things, but one thing it is not is a "Katrina Moment". This is its own thing, its own moment; this is an "AIG Moment", and that's all it need be. Two different moments under two different sets of circumstances, and the most — the very most — they have in common is the least important aspect: PR.
Katrina was the moment when Americans had to face up, at last, to the fact that they had made a terrible, stupid blunder in electing George W Bush president (ok, yes, they had elected Al Gore in 2000, but when the Supreme Court held its little coup, the national outrage was almost nil). The Bush/Cheney's clownish, inane, greed-driven administration was finally seen in all its glory and King W was revealed at last as having no clothes. From there, the mess that was his illegal and lie-based war became apparent to a public that had willfully allowed itself to be duped. Then the economy tanked, and through it all, Bush did almost nothing of import except throw fuel onto the fires.
Whatever Obama's handling of this matter, in terms of both competence and compassion, it is light years beyond what Bush ever attempted. The AIG bonus debacle is rife with blunder, miscalculation and political mishandling; but it is nowhere near the level of incompetence, cupidity or emptiness displayed by Bush and his criminal FEMA team during and following Katrina. I think, as do many progressives, that Obama made a mistake appointing Geithner, Summers et al to his administration; but whatever mistakes they are making, they are Olympian gods next to the tragic figure of Brownie. They will turn things around; how quickly and how systemically are questions yet to be resolved. Their backgrounds lead many, including me, to fear that whatever they do, it won't be enough. They will not change the underlying problems that got us to this point.
(I'm that's even their job. I think their job is to just fix what's wrong now. In two years, with the economy moving forward and the nation breathing a sigh of relief — except, of course, for Republicans in Congress — the President can move to the next stage: real changes in how America does business. His priority for now is to save the banks, get credit moving and save as many jobs as possible. He's attacking those problems as he thinks best, which, after all, is why he was elected. Once the current crisis has receded, he can address the system itself for fundamental change. Don't forget: Even though he's the President and able to direct many aspects of the recovery, the one thing he cannot force is the cooperation of people. Another president might try to strong-arm the executives, but where would he be once the crisis passed? Facing a solid cadre of pissed-off executives who would torpedo any attempt at institutional change. And that simply is not how Barack Obama operates. Get used to it.)
Tonight, the President holds a prime time news conference, and he'll address these issues. Will he kick the ass Frank Rich and Arriana Huffington want kicked? Doubtful. Will he throw Geithner under the bus? Very doubtful. Will he persuade everyone that he's got things under control and please continue to trust him? Don't be silly. But dig this about the populist rage surging across the country:
It makes great headlines. I have yet to hear anyone accuse Obama or Geithner for Katrina-like ineptitude. Not even the Republicans have been stupid enough to equate the two situations (granted, many Rs are accusing Obama of creating a Stalinist state, but that kind of wingnuttiness hardly counts as rational discussion anyway). People are pissed, which means the national media and talking heads, devoid as most of them are of either journalistic skill or original intellect, will hop on the AIG bonus horse and ride that poor nag until it collapses and a new pre-written story shows up (presumably Obama will use the wrong fork for his salad at a state dinner). That it's Frank Rich making this mistake is very discouraging.
When we see Barack Obama willfully letting life-threatening disaster come upon the American people, then we can talk about "Katrina Moments". But as long as he is working as hard as he can to fix the mess that was left to him by Bush, Congress and Wall Street, to even suggest this is the least bit Katrina-like is a shameful thing to write. It's a terrible insult.
Not to the President. To those who died in New Orleans.