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.
This barely captures how badly the press bungled Katrina coverage. Keep in mind that the most horrifying tales of woe that captivated the press and prompted news anchors to - quite literally - scream at federal officials occurred within the safe zone around the Superdome where the press was operating. Shame on local officials for fomenting fear and passing along newly minted urban legends, but double shame on the press for recycling this stuff uncritically. Members of the press had access to the Superdome. Why not just run in and look for the bodies? Interview the rape victims? Couldn't be bothered? The major networks had hundreds of people in New Orleans. Was there not a single intern available to fact-check? The coverage actually cost lives. Helicopters were grounded for 24 hours in response to media reports of sniper attacks. At least two patients died waiting to be evacuated.
And yet, a ubiquitous media chorus claims simultaneously that Katrina was Bush's worst hour and the press's best. That faultless paragon of media scrupulousness Dan Rather proclaimed it one of the "quintessential great moments in television news." Christiane Amanpour explained, "I think what's interesting is that it took a Katrina, you know, to bring us back to where we belong. In other words, real journalists, real journalism, and I think that's a good thing."
But in the race to prove the federal response incompetent, the "real journalists" missed some important details. As Lou Dolinar of RealClearPolitics.com exhaustively documents, the National Guard did amazing work in New Orleans. From the Superdome, the Guard managed some 2,500 troops, a dozen emergency shelters, more than 200 boats, 150 helicopters (which flew more than 10,000 sorties moving 88,181 passengers, 18,834 tons of cargo, and saved 17,411 survivors), and an enormous M*A*S*H operation that, among other things, delivered seven babies.
Also left out of the conventional tale of Katrina is the fact that the hurricane hardly singled out New Orleans. Obviously, the flooding was worse because of the levee breaks. But, as Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour noted, the people of his state and Alabama and Florida have the same federal government. And despite awesome destruction, they managed to do OK.
None of this is to say that the federal government and the Bush administration didn't make mistakes. But, if we're looking for poster children for arrogant incompetence in response to Katrina, there are better candidates than George W. Bush.