The president makes a preemptive strike -- on Texas

With another hurricane coming, George W. Bush won't be seen playing the guitar and passing out birthday cake this time.

Published September 23, 2005 12:47PM (EDT)

Two and a half years ago, George W. Bush was so eager to show that he'd learned "the lesson of September the 11th" that he went and invaded a country that didn't attack us and didn't have much of a capacity to do so. Today, he'll show that he learned the lessons of Hurricane Katrina by traveling to Texas before a storm has even struck there. The president will check in on preparations for Hurricane Rita in Texas before high-tailing it up to Colorado, where he'll monitor the hurricane's progress and the government's response from the operation center of the Northern Command. Message: I'm in charge here.

Isn't this all just an extended photo op, like all those trips the president has made to the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina? Don't try telling that to Scott McClellan. The White House press secretary bristled at the very suggestion yesterday. "This is a catastrophic hurricane that is headed toward the coast of Texas, and the president wants to go and be able to see some of the preparations that are underway and thank all those who are involved in preparing for this response," McClellan said. "He is the president, and, as he indicated to you all, it is his responsibility when it comes to the federal government's role in these hurricanes."

What if things go badly? While the government is flooding Texas with manpower and supplies in advance of the storm, the evacuation of Galveston and other areas on the state's Gulf Coast has turned Interstate 45 into a 100-mile-long parking lot. According to one report, the traffic has come to such a standstill that drivers have "had time to get out of their cars, walk to nearby stores, wait in long lines at restrooms and return to vehicles that had not moved." A bus carrying evacuees exploded near Dallas this morning. Is this the plan we've got for dealing with national emergencies? Does Bush really want to go around accepting responsibility for things that haven't happened yet?

The White House calculation: It beats the alternative. That image of the president goofing off with a guitar as Katrina devastated New Orleans is no longer just fodder for liberal bloggers and Photoshop jokers. It found its way into the second paragraph of today's New York Times report on Bush's Texas trip, and it was the subject of a fairly extended go-round during yesterday's White House press briefing. McClellan complained that the picture of Bush playing the guitar has been taken "way out of context." "It was portrayed that the president was simply doing that, and that's not the case, as you and I know." What's the right context? On the day that New Orleans went underwater, McClellan said, the president was given the guitar backstage at an event in California where he was thanking the troops for fighting in Iraq.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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