CONSERVATIVE FRIENDS have been sending me long, detailed e-mails about the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. They are all designed to place the blame on New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, while exonerating President Bush. These electronic messages have certainly been impressive and revealed previously unknown facts. After reading them, I acknowledge the timelines of what happened, when and who knew what, and when and who signed what and when. My friends are right that state and local government were the first lines of defense -- and they failed. This represents a systemic failure of government at all levels.
While their details are valid and their points well made, these are merely the facts. Facts usually matter far less than perception, and perception is often reality.
In times of national crisis, the people of the United States look to the president for command, reassurance, and hope. They want to see someone who stands tall, takes charge, tells them the truth, and makes them feel like they are better people than they are. Ronald Reagan was a master at this, as was Franklin Roosevelt, despite the fact that he couldn't stand at all. Harry Truman won respect with the adage, ''The buck stops here," because ordinary people acknowledged and respected that position. John F. Kennedy convinced us that we really could go where no man has gone before.
In this crisis, George W. Bush failed the perception test. As columnist Charles Krauthammer says in the Sept. 9
The perception is that he let the American people down, and we as a nation are very unforgiving of such a perceived betrayal.
Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco are indeed much to blame. But in the national arena, they are irrelevant. No one outside of Louisiana had ever heard of them before Hurricane Katrina, and they will be a footnote in history by this time next year.
The person who does matter is George W. Bush, and that it why he is drawing so much ire. Those of us in the other 49 states look at the situation in Louisiana and worry that our state could be next. Not for the same kind of disaster -- this was very specific to New Orleans -- but that is also irrelevant. Tornadoes, flooded rivers, tsunamis, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, erupting volcanoes, the Asian bird flu -- all offer opportunities for the next catastrophe. And we wonder if it will hit us and how well our government will serve us. What we saw in New Orleans reassures no one.
If the next catastrophe could hit any one of us, we want a real leader in charge. If Hurricane Andrew helped to take the senior Bush out of the White House, Hurricane Katrina does not augur well for his son's party. Senator John McCain may well be the best candidate they can now put up because he has the perception of being a strong leader, a no-nonsense, take-charge kind of guy. Americans will be hungry for that kind of candidate in the next election.
In the meantime, my friends should not be shocked, perplexed, or angry about the rage directed at President Bush. It's as natural as it is inevitable, and no amount of analysis, no army of facts, no timeline of events can overcome the dismay that permeated America as we watched his performance over the last several weeks. I do not believe he can recover from this. He will certainly go on to other things and do his best to put Katrina's impact on his presidency in the past. But emotions are strong, and betrayal is not easy to forget.