When even the extraordinarily conservative Washington Times is wondering what happened to "the president we saw standing atop the ruin of the World Trade Center, rallying a dazed country to action," you know that George W. Bush has got trouble on his hands.
The president made his way back from vacation Wednesday, and Friday he traveled along the Gulf Coast to check in on hurricane damage and relief efforts. We said Friday morning that he probably couldn't expect a hero's welcome. What we didn't anticipate was just how tone-deaf he'd be in making the rounds.
Before leaving Washington Friday morning, Bush said that the results of the federal government's relief efforts were "not acceptable." He promised to make things right when he landed in Mobile, Ala., a few hours later, but he also offered up a shout-out to FEMA Director Michael Brown. "Brownie," he said, "you're doing a heck of a job."
In the same speech, the president noted that Trent Lott's oceanfront home in Pascagoula, Miss., had been destroyed, and he promised that it -- like all of the Gulf Coast -- will be built again better than it was before. "There's going to be a fantastic house," Bush said, "and I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch." There was laughter as the president spoke in Mobile, but probably not so much among the mostly African-American victims still waiting for help in New Orleans. It was Trent Lott, after all, who once observed that America would have been better off if it had elected segregationist Strom Thurmond to the White House in 1948.
Bush stopped next in Biloxi, Miss. He tried to comfort an African-American woman he met there, but it's not clear that he succeeded. The woman was sobbing. She had returned to her home to get clothing for her son, and there was nothing there. "My son needs clothes," she said. "Ma'am," Bush said, "there's a Salvation Army center that I want to, that I'll tell you where it is, and they'll get you some help." The woman repeated that she was looking for clothes, and the president said the Salvation Army center would get her some. But then another resident -- a white man the president high-fived -- told Bush that the location where Bush thought the Salvation Army center was had been "wiped out." The president told the woman to "hang in there."
While in Biloxi, Bush made it clear that he wasn't admitting any kind of failure or mistake when he announced earlier that the "results" of the relief efforts were "not acceptable." Asked why help hadn't come more quickly, Bush talked of progress in New Orleans and said: "I am satisfied with the response. I'm not satisfied with all the results." Asked what "results" he had in mind, Bush said: "Well, I'm talking about the fact that we don't have enough security in New Orleans yet."
Finally, Bush flew by helicopter over New Orleans. After he landed -- and just before he left again on Air Force One -- the president went before the cameras on the airport tarmac. He vowed that New Orleans would be rebuilt. He said something odd about Houston -- that he believed it would be "that very same town . . . a better place to come to" -- and he joked about how he used to "enjoy" himself, "occasionally too much," there. He referred to the suffering citizens of New Orleans as "the good folks" in "this part of the world," as if he were among foreigners in some land far from home. And he said that that they needed to "understand" that hard work was being done and progress was being made. He said that people are working around the clock to repair levees, that the New Orleans convention center has been secured, and that "caravans" of buses were taking victims to safer ground.
As the president flew back home to Washington, the news came over the wire: A bus carrying refugees from New Orleans overturned on a Louisiana highway, killing one of them and wounding at least 10 others.