Waiting for a leader

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

  —President Franklin D. Roosevelt


“Contribute cash to a charity of your choice. Call an 800 number.”

  —President George Bush 2


Every so often, in times of immense crisis, we really do need a national leader to reassure us, tell us we’ll find a way out of this mess, and that while we may have to face hard going and sacrifices, we’ll make it, together.

Franklin D. Roosevelt did that for a nation panic-stricken in the depths of economic depression, and again when we were attacked in World War II. John F. Kennedy did it during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ronald Reagan did it when the space shuttle Challenger exploded seconds into its flight.

Winston Churchill did it best of all.

Something like that was what this nation needed last week, when New Orleans and much of the surrounding area was devastated by what seems to be the most immense natural disaster in our nation’s history.

Unfortunately, we don’t have anybody like that today. Not that you can blame the grinning former cheerleader who occupies the office of the president. You see, he was still on his five-week vacation, clearing brush at his ranch when the hurricane hit and the levees — earthen dams — around New Orleans broke.

Here’s what the Manchester Union-Leader, long regarded as the nation’s most conservative newspaper, said about our union’s present leader: “A better leader would have flown straight to the disaster zone and announced the immediate mobilization of every available resource to rescue the stranded, find and bury the dead and keep the survivors fed, clothed, sheltered and free.”

Yes, well, we have George W. Bush instead. Incidentally, according to Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, Bush’s team diverted money that was supposed to be used to strengthen the levees to the war in Iraq.

“Nobody locally is happy that the levees can’t be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us,” the emergency management chief for the parish (county) that includes New Orleans said last year, pleading for the funding to be restored.

Instead, the administration cut the funding further and, according to New Orleans’ dominant newspaper, the Times-Picayune, ordered the New Orleans district office not to begin any new studies of their safety needs. “In the tradition of the riverboat gambler, the Bush administration decided to roll the dice on its fool’s errand in Iraq, and on a tax cut that mainly benefited the rich. Now Bush has lost that gamble, big time.”

Actually, the nation lost. We thought we knew about hurricanes; the big ones hit Florida, rip a lot of tin roofs off buildings, and kill a few dozen people, most of them too poor to get their names in the newspapers.

We get to see grieving relatives, however, and it all makes good TV news copy in the late summer slow news season. This one was something else.

What is clear is that Hurricane Katrina, and our failure to adequately prepare for it, may have seriously damaged the national economy, long term. You may now tell your grandchildren that you remember when gasoline was less than $3 a gallon. Don’t expect to see it cheaper again.

Incidentally, if you wanted to know how strong our standards of civilized behavior are, we now know the answer: These days, civilization disappears with the electric power, and the water and sewer system.

We also know how prepared our nation’s emergency services are for a disaster of this magnitude, and the answer is, not nearly well enough. For four years everybody has been spinning melodramatic scenarios of terrorist attacks with nuclear devices or germ warfare in major cities.

For many years, we’ve known that a hurricane could do something like this to New Orleans, just as we know that an earthquake will eventually, in a few decades if not before, do much worse somewhere in California.

And how well were local, state and national authorities prepared? Pretty damn poorly, judging from the pictures I’ve seen and the stories I’ve read. Two days passed before the authorities seemed to stop sleepwalking about a massive rescue effort. For days, law enforcement was evidently nonexistent.

Television broadcast endless pictures of looters gleefully emptying department stores of racks of clothing and stacks of merchandise, and there were reports that some police and firefighters were right in there with them. What every white person in America noticed — and not a single reporter breathed a word about — was that virtually every looter shown was black.

So were most of the victims, and the few white ones shown seemed clearly to be poor. Why was this? Does this prove that all blacks revert to criminal behavior when they get half the chance, or that only the poor, colored and stupid get caught up by natural disasters? That seemed to be the unspoken message.

The fact is that most commentators were paralyzed by the two major taboos we have left in our society: honest discussion of race and class.

The fact is that, yes, the looters were mainly black. That’s who lives there, in the areas most heavily hit. For one thing, all New Orleans is two-thirds African-American. For another, poor people generally live where it’s less safe.

Rich people live in houses up on the hills. Poor people live down in the river bottoms. This has been the pattern ever since, oh, Nebuchadnezzar. That’s why the poor and black are being most heavily affected by this disaster.

They also don’t usually have comfortable, secure vehicles in which to flee, American Express cards to charge a room at a Holiday Inn up the road, or insurance in the event their few belongings are stolen. So they stay put.

We won’t know the effect of what has happened for some time. The gas pumps are just the tip of the pipeline. By the way, did you hear Our Leader even mildly criticize the nation’s gas stations for jacking up the price 40 cents a gallon last Wednesday, gouging all of us for gas they had already paid for?

You know the answer. “George W. Bush gave one of the worst speeches of his life yesterday, especially given the level of national distress,” began the editorial in The New York Times last week.

The headline was the same as the headline on this column, “Waiting for a Leader.” Well, we have at least three years and four months to wait.

Good night and good luck, as Edward R. Murrow used to say.


I Found Religion: Bobby Henderson deserves the thanks of every thinking person in this country. When the idiots on the Kansas Board of Education voted to give “intelligent design” equal time with evolution in class, he formally requested that “Flying Spaghetti Monsterism (FSM)” be given equal time as well. According to his “Pastafarian” dogma, of which he is the prophet, global warming and hurricanes are caused by the decline in the numbers of pirates since the 1800s, and salvation can come only to those who are touched by “His Noodly Appendage.” Worship and learn at www.venganza.org.

Dozens of scientists have written to say that FSM makes far more sense than Intelligent Design. George W. Bush, by the way, says he thinks students should be exposed to “all theories,” presumably including marinara.

When all else fails, parody is sometimes the perfect antidote.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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