• Bush under fire for slow response
     | September 02,2005

    WASHINGTON — A political furor intensified on Thursday over President Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina as Democrats, local officials and members of an increasingly bewildered public accused the president of a slow response to the flood that has plunged New Orleans into chaos.

    Bush, in a rare morning-television interview, fought back.

    "I hope people don't play politics during this period of time," Bush told Diane Sawyer of ABC's "Good Morning America" in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. "This is a natural disaster, the likes of which our country may have never seen before."

    But the politics of natural disaster were close to the surface as Democrats said that the crisis, a potential opportunity for Bush to show lead-ership after a summer of bloodshed in Iraq, had become a political catastrophe as day-long images on television showed poor, African-American refugees desperate for food and water in the richest nation on earth.

    Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., said in a statement that he was struck by Bush's "cavalier attitude toward the plight of poor people across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama" and added that "now is not the time in the face of pain, anguish, and death to be weak and uncertain."

    Terry Ebbert, the head of emergency operations in New Orleans, bitterly complained on Thursday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was not offering enough help. "This is a national emergency," Ebbert told The Associated Press. "This is a national disgrace. FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control. We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can't bail out the city of New Orleans."

    Other Democrats cast Bush's first survey of the damage, viewed from his window on Air Force One as the presidential jet headed back to Washington two days after the hurricane hit, as an imperial act removed from the suffering of the people below.

    "It was not enough for the president to bank his plane and look at the window and say, 'Oh, what a devastating site,"' said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., in a statement on Thursday. "Instead of looking out the window of an airplane, he should have been on the ground giving the people devastated by this hurricane hope."'

    White House officials, already sensitive that Bush is suffering the lowest approval ratings of his presidency and under pressure to manage a catastrophe of what they called biblical proportions, reacted with frustration.

    "Seventy-two hours into this, to be openly posturing about this, to be attacking the president, is not only despicable and wrong, it's not politically smart," said one White House official who asked not to be named because he did not want to be seen as talking about the crisis in political terms. "Normal people at home understand that it's not the president who's responsible for this, it's the hurricane. This will get better, hour by hour and day by day."

    Publicly, the White House moved swiftly on many fronts to respond. Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, announced that Bush would spend Friday touring the devastation on the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans, and that former Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush would lead a private fund raising effort for the flood and hurricane victims, similar to what they did after the Asian tsunami last December.

    Clinton, who has become politically close to the Bush family in the last year, was the most prominent Democrat to defend Bush against the accusations of slowness.

    The White House battled a chorus of criticism throughout the day as bloggers made much of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice vacationing in New York during the disaster, where she was spotted at a Broadway show and was to attend the U.S. Open. By Thursday evening, Rice had cut short her vacation and returned to Washington, where she headed to a staff meeting to discuss ways of coordinating offers of foreign assistance from more than 30 countries and organizations.

    Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York who learned that it was essential to respond quickly to city disasters, said that Bush had not moved swiftly enough to express sympathy for the victims.

    Bloggers also circulated a picture of Bush playing a guitar at an event in California on Tuesday to imply that he was fiddling while New Orleans drowned. In fact, the picture was taken when the country singer Mark Wills presented Bush with a guitar backstage at Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado, Calif., after Bush gave a speech marking the 60th anniversary of the Japanese surrender in World War II.

    Later that day, as flood waters poured into New Orleans, Bush returned to his ranch in Texas, then left from his ranch for Washington on Wednesday morning.

    "I learned that people want you out there, they want you to suffer a little with them, they want you to convince them that you will protect them as part of your family, they want you to be an extension of them," Koch said.

    Koch, who supported Bush on the war in Iraq, said that "it's fair game for the Democrats to attack the president at this time. They want to win the House next year."

    Koch also said that Bush's trip to New Orleans and the Gulf coast on Friday indicated that "he can recover, he can do it tomorrow. But it was a missed opportunity."

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