That is the political significance of the public
outrage over the Bush administration’s inept response to Hurricane
Katrina – as well as the growing recognition that America finally must
confront the threat of global warming, that the Iraq War is a death
trap, and that the massive budget and trade deficits are mortgaging the
More and more Americans are waking up to the
realization that they were lulled to sleep by the clever operatives who
surround George W. Bush. Now, with New Orleans turned into a giant
cesspool by the collapse of neglected levees – and with bloated remains
of American citizens left for days to rot in the hot sun – the nation is
finally shaking itself alert and finding that the nightmare is all too
So, the overriding question has become: Is this
awakening too late, is there still time to stop Bush and his allies from
consolidating their political control over the federal government?
Even as the Bush administration staggers through
the twin debacles of Katrina and Iraq, the Right is within reach of its
long-sought goal of locking in Republican control of the government for
the foreseeable future, with Bush serving as what conservatives call a
“transformational” president. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush
& the Rise of ‘Managed-Democracy.’”]
Already holding the White House and Congress, the
conservatives see the final key as gaining firm control of the federal
courts. That way Bush’s assertion of nearly unlimited presidential power
can be rubber-stamped and any electoral disputes – like the one that put
Bush in office in 2000 – can be settled in the Republicans’ favor.
With this goal in mind, the White House is pressing
for quick confirmation of John Roberts, Bush’s nominee to succeed the
late William Rehnquist as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Then
will come another conservative to fill the vacancy from Sandra Day
O’Connor’s retirement. [For more on this judicial strategy, see
& the ‘Apex of Presidential Power’” and “Rehnquist’s
Legacy: A Partisan Court.”]
Another major advantage for the Right’s strategy is
how the American Left continues to underestimate the importance of media
infrastructure as a force for setting the nation’s political agenda.
Again this year, the liberal funding community
largely rebuffed appeals for money to build a counter-media
infrastructure that could begin competing with what conservative funders
have created over the past three decades. [For details on this 30-year
plan, see Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
There remains a prevailing attitude on the Left
that the current media imbalance will somehow correct itself or that the
imposition of government regulations will do the trick. [For more
details on this phenomenon, see Consortiumnews.com “The
Left’s Media Miscalculation.”]
Yet the sheer magnitude of the Right’s media
infrastructure – newspapers, magazines, radio, columnists, television,
books and the Internet – gives conservative Republicans a huge
advantage, especially during a crisis. When facing rough political
waters, the Right’s media acts as the ballast that steadies the
For instance, as the Bush administration bungled
Katrina’s aftermath, right-wing talk radio hosts did the best they could
to shift the blame from the failures of Bush’s Federal Emergency
Management Agency to state and local officials and even to the mostly
poor, black survivors trapped in New Orleans.
As the Katrina crisis built on Aug. 31, I was on
the road driving north from Washington and was amazed to hear right-wing
AM radio talkers argue that “able-bodied” people who lacked
transportation should simply have walked out of New Orleans. The message
was clear: if these folks weren’t so lazy and stupid, they would have
used their own two feet.
But the idea of trying to out-walk a hurricane with
150-mile-per-hour winds would seem nutty to anyone who’s ever lived
through even a milder storm. Still, the argument gave the conservative
base another reason not to blame Bush.
While on the road, I also got a taste of how
valuable progressive talk radio could be for arming American liberals
with facts and for persuading middle Americans that the nation needs new
As I drove past New York City, I picked up an Air
America Radio station where the hosts explained how Bush’s spending in
Iraq had diverted money needed to strengthen New Orleans’ levees and how
deployment of National Guard troops in Iraq had undermined the Guard’s
ability to respond to the disaster.
What was even more striking was the anger and
passion in the voices of Air America listeners who called in from all
over the country. They were furious over the national disgrace that was
unfolding in New Orleans, as Bush vacationed in Texas and then responded
haltingly to the crisis.
But the radio signal of the New York City station
faded as I reached upstate New York. The only AM talk radio I could get
then was the far more pervasive conservative variety. On those stations,
the New Orleans crisis either was treated as not that big a deal or as
something to blame on anybody but Bush.
I was in Montreal on Sept. 2 when Bush made his belated trip to the
Gulf Coast. On television, he appeared disconnected from the human
tragedy and desperate to suggest that the catastrophe was entirely
“I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees,” Bush
told ABC’s Diane Sawyer, although the threat to the levees had been
recognized for years.
In a report prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, FEMA had listed a
hurricane inundating New Orleans as one of the three most likely
catastrophes hitting the United States, along with a terrorist assault
on New York City and a San Francisco earthquake.
A breach of the levees also had been a major topic of discussion on
news and weather channels as Katrina churned through the Gulf of Mexico
toward New Orleans. There could be no doubt that Bush had been made
aware of this danger at that time.
After levees protecting the city gave way, the unheeded forewarnings
again dominated the news. On Aug. 30, 2005, three days before Bush’s
trip, an article at the Web site of the New Orleans Times-Picayune said,
“no one can say they didn’t see it coming.”
The next day, Editor & Publisher posted a story summarizing nine
articles that had appeared in the Times-Picayune about the levee danger
in 2004 and 2005, including evidence that the cost of the Iraq War had
forced a diversion of funds away from rebuilding the sinking levees.
The article said, “On June 8, 2004, Walter Maestri, emergency
management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, told the
Times-Picayune: ‘It appears that the money has been moved in the
president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and
I suppose that’s the price we pay. 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.” [Editor
& Publisher, Aug. 31, 2005]
But Bush brushed away this history with the confidence of a man who
has long disdained facts and gotten away with it. After all, he had
taken the country to war in Iraq under false pretenses and paid no
serious political price for his deceptions. [For examples, see
Bush, With the Candlestick…”]
So, as tens of thousands of mostly poor and black citizens endured
unspeakable squalor in flooded New Orleans, Bush slid into the role of
peppy cheerleader and consoled friends like Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss.,
who had lost one of his homes.
“Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott’s house – he’s lost his entire
house – there’s going to be a fantastic house,” Bush joshed. “And I’m
looking forward to sitting on the porch.”
Bush also had some encouraging words for his hapless FEMA director,
Michael Brown. “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” Bush said.
As I watched the BBC’s evening news at a home in Montreal on Sept. 2,
the British network cut live to Bush making more remarks before boarding
a flight back to Washington. Again there was the startling disconnect
between Bush’s banter and the suffering of millions in Alabama,
Mississippi and Louisiana.
Playing for laughs, Bush included a recollection about his past hard
partying in New Orleans, which he called “the town where I used to come
… to enjoy myself, occasionally too much.”
On Saturday, Sept. 3, driving back toward Washington, I reached the
New York City area and again tuned in the Air America station. But I was
disappointed to hear only the broadcast of pre-recorded “best-of”
content, some of it predating Hurricane Katrina. Air America appeared to
lack the resources to dispatch correspondents to the scene and offer
special live weekend coverage of the crisis.
I did, however, find live right-wing talk radio,
including more blame being heaped on the trapped New Orleans residents
for not using their feet and walking out of the city before the
This disdain for the poor of New Orleans wasn’t
limited to some loudmouths on talk radio, either. It extended directly
into the president’s family.
After visiting with evacuees in Houston’s
Astrodome, former First Lady
Barbara Bush confided her discomfort over “what I’m hearing which is
sort of scary is they all want to stay in Texas. … So many of the people
in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this – this
(she chuckles) is working very well for them.”
Still, as clumsily as the Bush administration
performed – and as surprisingly feisty as the mainstream news media
became in the hurricane’s aftermath – the conservative advantage in
media infrastructure over the liberals probably means that Bush will be
able to ride out the short-term political storm left behind by Katrina.
The media weakness of the American Left also
suggests that little can be done to demand any serious accountability.
Whereas in a more balanced political system a strong case could be made
for Bush’s impeachment – over both Iraq and Katrina – the Right’s
current dominance leaves little reason to think that Bush can be pushed
out before 2009.
Bush may have to retreat temporarily from parts of
his agenda, such as his plans to partially privatize Social Security and
permanently repeal the federal estate tax. But Bush has shown no sign of
making significant changes on issues like Iraq and global warming.
Over the next three-plus years, unless Republicans
lose control of the Congress in 2006, Bush also can expect a reasonably
free hand in appointing federal judges and deciding how far he should go
in curtailing civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism. [See
The twin disasters of Katrina and Iraq may have
sounded loud warnings about the risk of a nation putting ideology and
cronyism over common sense and responsible government. But the
longer-term catastrophe may be the transformation of the U.S. political
system into one that favors authoritarianism over democratic values.
Even as Americans grow more aware of the danger, it
is calamity that may already be too far advanced to head off.