Assigning blame, mayor and president can point only to themselves

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin had mixed feelings stepping aboard Air Force One last Friday when it visited his devastated city. He may not have liked the answers he received from President George W. Bush about what was happening (or not happening) with relief efforts. But, after going several days without running water, at least he got to use the on-board shower.

And while the mayor casts fingers of blame for what happened after Hurricane Katrina turned his city into a putrid swamp of death, he needs to point a big one at himself for what happened before the storm hit.

Evacuations of major cities aren't something you dream up on the spur of the moment. You plan for these far in advance, especially if you are in charge of a city below sea level with a big hurricane bullseye on it.

Why, Mayor Nagin, were all those people left out of the evacuation plans, if in fact there were any plans? The deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands could have been prevented if only you had thought about getting them out of harms way.

A lot of people want to blame Bush and the federal government for leaving behind mostly poor, black people when evacuations were ordered. Sorry, but the mayor will have to take credit for that one.

But don't worry. With a disaster this big, there's plenty of blame to go around, especially for what happened after the storm.

There are lots of pointing fingers, especially by those whose own actions could be called into question. We can talk about whether the right paperwork was filed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or if there was a power struggle between state and federal officials. But it comes down to the message Harry Truman kept on his desk in the White House: The buck stops here.

One thing is crystal clear. The president, as he has reminded us endlessly, is commander in chief. As such, he can, with a simple phone call, send military resources anywhere, any time. But the orders didn't come, for days. Ships, planes, helicopters, personnel sat idle while New Orleans drowned.

It sounds wholly cynical, but for lack of any other plausible explanation, the president was too busy with this five-week vacation to bother to send in the military to this desperate situation until it was too late. Not only him, but seemingly his whole administration was on holiday. Dick Cheney was in Wyoming, Chief of Staff Andy Card was in Maine, Secretary of State Condelezza Rice was catching "Spamalot" on Broadway. Most of Bush's communications staff was at a wedding in Greece. We're lucky if they left behind a receptionist at the White House to take phone messages.

Another screwup Bush is going to have to eat is his pick of Michael Brown as FEMA director. Giving political cronies ambassadorships to small, far-away countries is one thing. Putting them in charge of important agencies where they have no experience is monumentally stupid. The agency's slow, clueless response undoubtedly cost lives. Even Congress works faster and more efficiently than FEMA did last week.

One of the many Monty Python moments in this whole mess was when someone at FEMA had the bright idea to send firefighters volunteering for duty to sexual harassment training in Atlanta before shipping them to the disaster zone. I wish I was making this up. The only question left is whether Bush will have the spine to actually fire this incompetent fool, or give him the Medal of Freedom like he did George "Slam Dunk" Tenent.

As a country, we were willing to give Bush the benefit of the doubt for the mistakes that led to 9/11. Conservatives forgave him for the massive budget deficits. A slim majority of voters even excused him for the Iraq war and the quagmire it has become. But how many chances does one man deserve, when his mistakes cost the lives of thousands of Americans?

If Bush were a member of the military, instead of its commander in chief, he'd face court martial for dereliction of duty. His Republican friends in Congress will probably save him from having to face an impeachment hearing on those charges, at least until after the 2006 elections, when they may be voted out by an angry electorate.

If justice were indeed poetic, the mayor and the president would again share a shower together, in the more austere setting of a federal prison.

n Kirk Caraway is the Nevada Appeal's Internet editor. Contact him at


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