It was August 30, 2004, the opening night of the Republican convention, when Mr. Giuliani gave the headline speech that would set the theme for the rest of the days to follow: George Bush is a resolute leader. George Bush will keep us safe.
But on the first anniversary of that speech, as the long feared nightmare of a flooded New Orleans became a reality, it was clear that we are not safe.
Indeed, every night of last summer's convention, as one speaker after another belied the perils of trusting our nation's security to any lesser protector than George Bush, can be marked by it's own anniversial adducation of the contrary.
On Rudy's Tuesday, the day after New Orleans began to flood, and New Orleanians began to drown, we find George Bush flying to Coronado, Ca. to plug the leak in his Iraq war support. As Mayor Ray Nagin tells WWL radio that federal officials "don't have a clue what's going on down here", the president is photographed attempting to play a guitar.
Wednesday was Arnold's night to lay out "why America is safer with George W. Bush as president" and marks the return of the president from his vacation in Crawford, TX. New Orleans, fully flooded and descending into chaos and despair, sees little or no sign of federal intervention. Some did, however, see Air Force One fly over earlier in the day.
Thursday brings us the vitriolic Senator Zell Miller who declares George Bush "the man I trust to protect my most precious possession: my family", and Vice President Cheney who informs us that the president "gets up each and every day determined to keep our great nation safe." But on this day, one year later, it has become obvious to even Bush's ardent supporters that something is severely wrong with the federal response. As it becomes clear that people who survived the hurricane are now dying from abandonment, Bush tells Diane Sawyer that no one "anticipated the levees would breach."
Friday, Sep 2. Final night of the convention: "I am running for President with a clear and positive plan to build a safer world and a more hopeful America." Five days after the flooding of New Orleans began, National Guard troops begin arriving. The AP reports that a "mix of cheering and swearing has greeted National Guardsman pouring into New Orleans." Stranded victims continue to die waiting for rescue.
Of course, some of us knew all along that the image being projected of George Bush was just as fictitious as his National Guard service. But the fickle media, always a sucker for a good show, declared the convention a "masterpiece".
Perhaps if any good comes out of Katrina, it will be the realization by those in the media that elections are not just about the horse race. Perhaps they'll realize that those we put in positions of power, and the decisions they make, have real effects. Not just in remote, foreign lands, but right here at home. Perhaps next time they'll check that reality bears resemblance to the myth.
But the myth of the right's pre-eminence in all things security related, which was never supported by evidence anyway, is not the only one found gasping beneath the waves of Lake Pontchartrain. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has exposed the tepid foundation of conservative thought itself: that society as a whole functions better when its participants pursue their own self interest over the interest of society. Of course, the mathematician John Nash disproved this abject fallacy decades ago for which he won a Nobel Prize. But inevitably, the forces of nature, incommensurate to human frailty, speak far more persuasively than some obscure college thesis.
This isn't the first disaster to lay bare the fundamental flaw, even inhumanity of conservatism. Just last year, in the wake of Hurricane Charley, Florida's Republican Attorney General Charlie Crist announced he would "vigorously target" those engaging in "price gouging." And he did, bringing numerous suits against vulturous businesses including Days Inn.
But isn't price gouging just the free market at work? And isn't Mr. Crist's vigorous pursuit of gougers a blatant admission of the limits of a free market to expedite our higher, moral obligations to our fellow human beings?
Some conservatives must think so. Ideologues to the end, or just sensing the threat to their very existence, they have constructed "arguments" for why gouging is not the vile, unethical exploitation of the destitute, but actually a benefit. They argue that gouging provides the market incentive for outside providers to sweep in and take advantage of the high demand thus flooding the market and ultimately lowering prices. So disaster consumers get needed supplies and services that they may not otherwise have had and eventually the normalization of prices from the abundance of supply.
There are too many flaws in this reasoning to address here, so I will just point out the most glaring: disaster victims don't have time for the market to work itself out, they need food, housing and medical supplies now. It's just one of the pitfalls of being a disaster victim.
Fortunately, the vast majority of people don't need to labor over such ideological fixations. They just know that charging a family who has just lost everything to a hurricane $50 for water is nothing less than monstrous. This is why the overwhelmingly Republican, Florida legislature has still not repealed the 1992 anti-gouging law. They wouldn't dare.
So this begs the larger question: If it is wrong to gouge the victims of a hurricane, why is it okay to gouge the sick and elderly? Is not over a million people with terminal cancer or AIDS a national disaster? Or is their only difference the political influence of the gougers?
The sudden onslaught of a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina evokes our humanity and compels us to respond. But Katrina also exposed a hidden disaster which has been playing out in slow motion for many years: poverty. This disaster kills far more people than Katrina ever could. Indeed, without it, Katrina would have killed far fewer than it did.
But poverty is a hidden disaster. Hidden from television, hidden from our gated communities, stashed away in prison cells. The press has just had an epiphany, "Where did all those poor people come from?" But they've always been there. Living out the disaster that is our two-class system. All across America, our two Americas.
And this exposes the most glaring flaw: to sustain itself, conservativism relies on the invisibility of weakest among us. The other America, always conveniently out of sight.
Katrina has proven that most people, when confronted with tragedy, will respond with compassion and humanity. They will open their homes and their hearts to those in need and even support government funded reconstruction and "socialist" price controls. Decency trumps ideology every time.
So why do we allow so many to perish every day at the hands of poverty? If the millions of Americans, destitute, sick, homeless had met their fate suddenly, in real time as have the victims of Katrina, would we not be just as appalled at the government's failure to respond? To keep them safe? Beneath all of this lies a deeper truth: George Bush's apathetic response to the people of New Orleans is merely an extension of his, and his party's apathy to the plight of millions of Americans who were already suffering.
Encapsulating that apathy perfectly was the recent statement by Barbara Bush: "And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this--this (she chuckles slightly) is working very well for them."
Hopefully this disaster in the Gulf will compel us to revisit what kind of America we want to live in and the role that democratic government has in shaping it. Conservativism professes that man only achieves by striving for profit. That without greed, there can be no good. But we have seen, in the story of Hurricane Katrina, a thousand contraventions to that lie. When we look in the mirror, do we really want to see the face of Barbara Bush, or do we want to see the faces of those many compassionate Americans who selflessly acted to relieve the suffering of others while expecting nothing in return?