On a recent edition of "Larry King Live," liberal Republican Congressman Christopher Shays, eager to put some distance between himself and the president, explained what he thinks is George Bush's real albatross.
"Let me just say that I think the thing that has hurt the president most is not Iraq. It's Katrina," Shays said. "People saw an arrogant but confident administration, but when they saw Katrina, they saw arrogance and frankly incompetence, and that was very unsettling."
This sentiment is pervasive among Democrats and the press. Time magazine writes matter-of-factly that "the government's inept response to Hurricane Katrina" is a major liability for Republicans in '06. Howard Dean and other Democrats mention Katrina as a staple talking point.
That's certainly fair, given that the bar is set pretty low for what constitutes fair in American politics these days. But it is worth reminding people that the Katrina they think they remember wasn't the Katrina that actually took place. In fact, it is difficult to think of a bigger media scandal in my lifetime than the fraudulently inaccurate coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
Where to begin? As I've written before, virtually all of the gripping stories from Katrina were untrue. All of those stories about, in Paula Zahn's words, "bands of rapists, going block to block"? Not true. The tales of snipers firing on medevac helicopters? Bogus. The yarns, peddled on "Oprah" by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and the New Orleans police chief, that "little babies" were getting raped in the Superdome and that the bodies of the murdered were piling up? Completely false. The stories about poor blacks dying in comparatively huge numbers because American society "left them behind"? Nah-ah. While most outlets took Nagin's estimate of 10,000 dead at face value, Editor and Publisher - the watchdog of the media - ran the headline, "Mortuary Director Tells Local Paper 40,000 Could Be Lost in Hurricane."
In all of Louisiana, not just New Orleans, the total dead from Katrina was roughly 1,500. Blacks did not die disproportionately, nor did the poor. The only group truly singled out in terms of mortality was the elderly. According to a Knight-Ridder study, while only 15 percent of the population of New Orleans was over the age of 60, some 74 percent of the dead were 60 or older, and almost half were older than 75. Blacks were, if anything, slightly underrepresented among the dead given their share of the population.