So not a Katrina Moment, Frank Rich

T.A. Barnhart

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.

  • genop (unverified)

    Katrina was a case of being asleep at the switch. The financial meltdown is a case of working doggedly to find the right switches, while the opposition insists we should go back to sleep. Big difference.

  • Windy Day on Todd Mountain (unverified)

    Staggering. You don't have a clue what Katrina OR the bonuses are about.

    Neither was an ad hoc failure of government. Both were deliberate, conscious strategies for making the poor poorer and the rich richer. Both took years of regressive thinking from both parties to achieve. Both are warnings that more is to come. Both will happen again, because you just don't get it.

    Yeah, there's a problem. This.Society.Has.Failed. Now, if you want to stop and attribute blame, point toward the mirror. Is it really so hard, with all this Republikrap scat, to ignore the irrelevant parts and say you're already onto the valid parts? Do you really have to make every statement that comes from either side of the aisle a matter of honor? People are reading this to see how Obama plans to change things for the better.

    Oh, right. We don't need to know that. You told us what he's going to say tonight. Good idea getting this up, before what he has to say undercuts it all. Frankly, I've had enough of his talk. Based on his performance, his account has been flagged for possible fraudulent activity. Is anger your only political motivation? Not all bad, but the radar could use some fine tuning.

  • (Show?)

    The intent of the question as I see it--is this when America loses faith with the current administration's competence and credibility--is indeed absurd.

    HOWEVER--and it's a big however--there are some striking similarities as to unneeded warnings, slow emergency response, and a general excuse after the fact that "no one could have forseen this." To the extent the first TARP was a Bush/Paulson show it's fair to actually ask if this isn't Katrina II for Bush--but Congress knew there were few taxpayer protections, approved it anyway (including the then-junior Senator from IL), and even worked in some areas to make SURE those protections weren't there.

    So the point of the column is silly--but the larger question about letting a problem become a crisis, and then coming in late to prop up some of the very people responsible, feels very apt.

  • (Show?)

    That's unHeeded warnings, not unneeded. Stupid iPhone autocorrect!

  • joel dan walls (unverified)

    Well, Left Blogistan, as some wag likes to call it, certainly contains a lot of sites which disagree strongly with the Obama Administration's economic-rescue policies. The crux of the argument seems to be that the Administration ought to be working to save the economy, but instead is working to save the banks and "banksters" (banker crossed with gangster, for the uninitiated). I'm nowhere near enough of an economist to say, but I confess to being concerned that the proposal put forward by Secretary Geithner will first, not do the job, and second, lead to more ripoffs of the public purse by Wall Street. If these steps don't work--and perhaps even if they do--we could see a surge in inflation that makes my retirement savings and yours look way inadequate.

  • Harry Kershner (unverified)

    Thus spake the Savior (with apologies to Zarathustra):

    "Geighty, you're doing a heck of a job."

    I agree with Windy Day on Todd Mountain, and I appreciate "Republikrap scat".

  • (Show?)

    What will continue to frustrate many on the left is Obama's refusal to attack his opponents, critics, or in this case, the bankers with the anger that the critics feel is warranted. However, that is who he is. We all knew when we voted for him that he will seek to get along with people that he doesn't agree with and he will keep his language civil.

    The question of how to handle the AIG, Merrill Lynch, Citi Bank excesses is not clear. The bill that the House passed feels good, but may not hold up in court and may cause new problems. It is worth pursuing alternatives to getting the money back. My own proposal is setting up a Justice Dept. task force to pursue criminal charges on wall street. While the claim is that the actions involved did not break any laws I would be shocked if they can't find that many of the sinners are guilty of tax fraud, negligence of fiduciary duties, failure to report to shareholders, failure to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley controls, etc. Rich is attacking Obama/Geithner for not doing something earlier and I agree that ideally they should have. However, with all of the things on their plates they have remained focused on trying to get the economy going again and not be side-tracked by other issues. Much as I want the bonuses refunded and revenge taken on these bastards, it is not clear to me how that would help the economy in the short run. I think Obama has his priorities right.

  • Ten Bears (unverified)

    Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

  • Patrick Story (unverified)

    A problem of readership is skewing this discussion away from Frank Rich's main point. On Sunday March 22, Rich wrote in the N.Y. Times that Obama's initial attempt to minimize the AIG scandal via a "patronizing lecture" by Lawrence Summers foregrounds the need for Obama to "do what he has repeatedly promised but not always done: make everything about his economic policies transparent and hold every player accountable."

    Sending the ethically challenged Summers over to CBS on the previous Sunday to give his legalistic defense of the AIG bonuses is simply one example of the problem that Rich cites (among many others).

    Rich is saying that Obama is now eye-to-eye with "the best and the brightest" of our ruling elite, those who have run the global economy into the ground, and he has blinked. Either Obama stands up to them now by, for example, telling the truth about what has been done with taxpayer money, or we get a new Great Depression. I'd call that a Katrina moment, yes.

  • (Show?)

    Patrick, you make a very good point, and one i agree with. as so often happens with what i write at BO, i find what i should have written later! i think it's far too early to say Obama's approach won't work; i do not think he got the right people for the job, but he has a history of being more right than just about anyone else. i'm not ready to lose faith in him yet.

    but i stand by my closing point: using "Katrina" in this context is wrong. Frank Rich is a better writer than that. he can make his point without degrading what Katrina was. Bush let 2,000 innocent people die thru nothing more than administrative incompetence. how is this even remotely similiar? (for which reason, Ten Bears should be completely ashamed of her statement.)

  • (Show?)

    Patrick, you make a very good point, and one i agree with. as so often happens with what i write at BO, i find what i should have written later! i think it's far too early to say Obama's approach won't work; i do not think he got the right people for the job, but he has a history of being more right than just about anyone else. i'm not ready to lose faith in him yet.

    but i stand by my closing point: using "Katrina" in this context is wrong. Frank Rich is a better writer than that. he can make his point without degrading what Katrina was. Bush let 2,000 innocent people die thru nothing more than administrative incompetence. how is this even remotely similiar? (for which reason, Ten Bears should be completely ashamed of her statement.)

  • (Show?)

    In some senses what we saw today did indeed show just how difficult a moment Obama knows this is. Even though Wall Street responded enthusiastically to the "cash for trash" plan, the major headlines were much more focused on the Administration's request (backed by the Fed) for broad new powers to take over non-bank institutions like AIG and deal with them the way that the FDIC deal with insolvent banks.

    This would be a potentially major, structural reform - and, I think, a very positive one.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    I'm more inclined to agree with Windy Day, but in one sense T.A. is right. This trip with Obama, Rubin, Summers, Geithner, Dodd and Frank through Mammon's Wonderland of Wall Street is much different than Katrina. Katrina was just about the poor dying needlessly and being treated with callous indifference by the Bush Administration and Congress. Nothing out of the ordinary there if you take a historical viewpoint and consider such seminal events as slavery, segregation and genocide of Native Americans. Inhumanity towards people in the lower power and economic strata is just in line with standard operating procedures bringing out a relatively limited response of concern from the American people.

    The current financial crisis is much different. It is hitting or will hit the vast majority of Americans where it hurts - in their wallets and 401Ks - so that they have awakened from their slumber and expressed an outrage to their elected wretches in Congress - something many of them never even thought about doing during Katrina. They have worshiped Mammon in vain and feel betrayed without realizing that is the blowback that frequently comes from worshiping false gods and drinking their Kool-Aid.

    It also doesn't help when the ruling plutocracy and their cohorts in Congress make their contempt for the people so obvious that even the dimmest wits among the people are catching on.

  • Harry Kershner (unverified)

    Stop blaming the victims. There is a massively funded, extremely effective propaganda machine that causes people to believe that the DP/RP elites are acting in their interests and according to their values.

    Americans want even-handedness in the treatment of Israel/Palestine; they want more money spent on social programs and less on the military; they do not favor imperial designs. Just read the average BO poster, and you'll see that it's ideological delusion that's responsible for what's gone wrong, not the stupidity or dim-wittedness of ordinary people.

  • Archives of Gallifrey (unverified)
    <h2>At this point, let it be noted for futuristic blog readers, that BO made its closest approach to reality, the periousia, so to speak.</h2>

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