Mother Nature has a deft hand when it comes to reorganizing human perspective, as we've witnessed with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Suddenly "things" don't matter, we're reminded; only life and loved ones do.
But Mother Nature also has other talents - ripple effects and trickle-down consequences that help shape the political landscape. As she highlights our priorities, she also showcases those individuals who rise to the occasion. As well as those who don't.
Thus, Katrina and Rita may be pivotal players in determining who becomes the next president of the United States. Presidents, after all, are often elected according to the climate at a given moment, rather than by strict measures of specific skills.
President George W. Bush, despite his early days of bacchanalia (hardly a solitary pursuit among the baby-boomer generation), was a stiff shirt and straight arrow following Bill Clinton's prolonged adolescence. He was, in other words, a reaction vote for someone who promised to restore dignity to the White House. No more "little office" parties; no more Hollywood stars jumping on the Lincoln bed.
In his time, Clinton - just a warm-blooded good ol' boy from Arkansas who could feel everybody's pain (and the occasional intern) - was a reaction to the cold New England, out-of-touch George H.W. Bush, himself a kinder-gentler reaction to tough-guy Ronald Reagan, who was a reaction to a peanut farmer with a preacher streak, who was a reaction to the corrupt era of Watergate.
You get the picture. In the current climate of war and ravaging hurricanes, the lingering effects of which will be on front pages for months if not years, what sort of president might be next in line? In times of national disaster and cataclysmic events, who you gonna call?
Rudy, Rudy, Rudy - as in former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani - springs to mind. Or is it Arizona Sen. John McCain? Both men have been getting lots of buzz the past couple of weeks as Americans have been reeling from hurricanes, massive federal spending promises and leadership that makes the Keystone Cops seem like Swiss clockmakers.
Both men have been leading the short list of possible Republican presidential candidates, of course, but then Katrina and Rita came along. They were more than weather. While no one wishes to minimize or trivialize the horror of these storms, especially as people are still struggling with death and loss, there's no avoiding the inevitable political effects.
Giuliani has benefited greatly by his unavoidable comparison to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. Obviously, hurricanes and terrorist attacks are vastly different, especially in scope. But Nagin missed his bullhorn moments: first, before the storm when he might have evacuated thousands of poor people without access to transportation; second, immediately afterward when his city quickly turned into a swamp of anarchy.
If Katrina is remembered as the storm that destroyed New Orleans, Nagin will be remembered as the mayor who lost control. By comparison, Giuliani is forever imprinted on the American psyche as the Eveready-man, able to manage whatever furies are unleashed by Earth's wrath or Hell's wraiths.
McCain may have benefited politically even more than Giuliani from the storms' ripples. As Americans recoil in horror at the projected $200 billion federal price tag attached to rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast (and who knows for Rita), McCain is one of the few voices - along with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. - calling for government restraint.
Not against the spending per se, as the federal government is mandated by law to cover a certain percentage of reconstruction costs following disaster. But against pork-barrel and other unnecessary spending during a time of war and natural disaster.
While some are calling for cuts in war spending and troop withdrawal from Iraq to meet these expenses, McCain and Coburn issued a joint statement calling on Congress to "lead by example" by cutting pork-barrel spending to help fund hurricane relief. They made some progress Wednesday as Coburn succeeded in getting the Senate to pass an amendment attached to the Agriculture appropriations bill that would "lift the veil of secrecy that conceals the process of inserting special projects - or pork - into appropriations bills."
Thus McCain, as a voice of fiscal conservatism in a party that has strayed far from that principle, may evolve as the hurricane candidate. Hurricane McCain? A war hero in a time of war, who is also a small-government conservative in an era of deficit spending, sounds like a perfect storm.