The day before Hurricane Katrina struck land, George W. Bush participated in a video-link briefing in which the National Hurricane Center's Max Mayfield expressed "very, very grave concern" that the levees in New Orleans wouldn't be able to withstand the storm.
After Katrina hit -- after water rushed over the levees and into the streets of New Orleans, and after the president made his way back from vacation in Texas and a campaign-style trip to California -- Bush went on national TV to say: "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."
Is there a contradiction there? You'd think, and Knight Ridder actually has the nerve to say so: Calling the news "another blow to an administration whose integrity and competence has come under fire for its response to the hurricane," Knight Ridder says the transcripts of the pre-Katrina call "appear to contradict" the president's "assertions that no one anticipated the failure of levees that flooded the city."
Of course, people had been anticipating just that for years. What the videotape, first obtained by the Associated Press, adds to the picture is visual proof that Bush himself was told of the possibility that the levees wouldn't hold.
The White House response? When Bush was first asked in September to explain the notion that nobody could have predicted the breach of the levees, he said that what he'd meant was that no one could have predicted it once it appeared that New Orleans had "dodged a bullet" from Katrina. "There was a sense of relaxation, and that's what I was referring to," he explained. But as Bush was experiencing his "sense of relaxation," many in the media were reporting that New Orleans hadn't, in fact, dodged a bullet, and both the National Weather Service and a FEMA employee on the ground in New Orleans were both sending word that a levee had, in fact, failed.
Now that it has been confronted with the videotape, the White House is arguing that it shouldn't be taken out of context. "I hope people don't draw conclusions from the president getting a single briefing," says White House spokesman Trent Duffy said.
The problem, of course, is that the video of the briefing seems very much in context. As with the war in Iraq, it's not that the White House wasn't getting the bad news it needed to hear; it's that it was ignoring what it was told. As the Associated Press notes, Bush didn't ask a single question during the Aug. 28 briefing -- a fact former White House advisor David Gergen calls "devastating." Instead, the president sat quietly through the dire warnings, then declared that the government was "fully prepared" for whatever was coming.
At least he didn't go fishing.