Bush’s mixed record of dealing with disasters

Disaster has been both the making and the undoing of President Bush.

Bush’s bearing after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — tough yet empathetic — felt right to the public. He rode that support to a second term, despite questions about the economy and the war in Iraq.

He was far less sure-footed when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. He stumbled through his initial appearances in the disaster zone, leaving the impression of a president who was distant from the immense suffering. His presidency — like the region — has never quite recovered from its faltering early reaction.

When tragedy strikes, presidents are expected to be national consoler — figures who affirm the grief even as they chart a path out of it. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.

President Bush’s father, in the middle of a what became his losing re-election campaign in 1992, was slammed for his administration’s lackluster response to Hurricane Andrew. By contrast, Bill Clinton rebuilt his embattled presidency partially on the strength of his commanding reaction to the Oklahoma City bombings.

The current President Bush has had plenty of experience with disaster.

When the space shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003, raining debris over Texas and Louisiana and killing its seven-member crew, Bush offered comfort to families by phone and fought tears on television. In 2004, Florida was hit by four hurricanes, prompting a president seeking re-election to pay five storm-focused visits to that politically crucial state.

Periodically since he launched the Iraq war in 2003, Bush has held emotional private meetings with relatives of U.S. soldiers lost in battle.

On Tuesday, Bush was called again to comforter-in-chief duty. An apparently lonely and troubled Virginia Tech student had gunned down 32 people at the Blacksburg, Va., school before killing himself.

Speaking at a convocation to young people worn thin by fear and grief, Bush encouraged them to lean where he does: on family, friends and faith.

“On this terrible day of mourning, it’s hard to imagine that a time will come when life at Virginia Tech will return to normal,” the president said. “But such a day will come. And when it does, you will always remember the friends and teachers who were lost yesterday, and the time you shared with them, and the lives they hoped to lead.”

The president’s remarks were fatherly — more fellow church member and citizen than the galvanizing national leader who spoke in Washington’s National Cathedral three days after the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington that killed nearly 3,000 people. Then, in soaring terms, he pronounced it only “the middle hour of our grief” but one that had already produced resolve.

“This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing,” the president said.

By that afternoon, he had reached a burned-out fire engine on the rubble pile at the World Trade Center and grabbed a rescuer’s bullhorn.

“I can hear you. I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon,” Bush shouted to the weary workers.

Altogether, it was one of the finest days of his presidency.

Almost exactly four years later, Katrina ushered in a troubled period for Bush.

Other problems — the escalation of a CIA leak investigation and the abandonment of a Supreme Court nomination — further put him off stride. With the situation in Iraq growing deadlier and more complicated, the president never regained his footing, and last year his party lost control of Congress to Democrats.

Clinton proved his disaster bona fides with an emotional visit to the scene of the Midwest’s Great Flood of 1993 and his on-the-scene empathy after the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.

That tragedy came at a low point in his presidency, not long after his party’s loss of power in Congress in the 1994 midterm elections. Clinton’s reaction helped send his approval rating over 50 percent, setting the stage for his successful battles with the Republican Congress and his 1996 re-election.

Clinton also faced the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School during his presidency. He went to Colorado to meet with survivors a month after the shootings that left 15 dead, including the two gunmen. He later returned to campaign for gun control.

Under the first President Bush, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was accused of botching South Carolina’s recovery from Hurricane Hugo in 1989. He also was criticized for a by-the-book federal effort when Andrew struck, as thousands went without shelter and other necessities for days. He visited the area, but his administration declined an initial appeal to send a military engineering brigade and other troops.

The elder Bush later changed course and circumvented the embattled agency by appointing his transportation secretary, Andrew Card, to coordinate relief efforts.

But it was too late. He lost to Clinton in the November election.



Jennifer Loven has reported from Washington since 1997 and has covered the Bush White House for five years.

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press


  1. Sandy Price

    But he is our faith leader, not our leader of men! He has never been a leader of American values but he can be counted on to be a Christian. It has gotten mixed up in his mind and he can offer only prayers instead of leadership. But it was the religious right who elected him and they got their money’s worth.

    Every political discussion of value at this time is a search for leadership that does not cut up the Constitution. We have had many Presidents who kept their oath of office and realized their limitations found in the U.S. Constitution.

    Suddenly we find a man who talks to God and has said that this is his own source for his decisions. A third of the American people are satisfied with him but the rest of us feel we are losing our American values.

    Bush has never been honest with the American people and his decisions come from a group of Pat Robertson’s people. The third of those American who like this want the control over all of us in their attempt to sort out Americans in groups and accept only the chosen groups who follow them.

    The division has brought only rage and discontent. We forget America is made up of 50 states who have the rights from the 10th Amendment to set the rules for their own citizens.

    Many of us have watched to see how every President in our lifetime has shown either a respect for the 10th or a disregard for it. Now the 2nd Amendment is being threatened. Bush claims to not support gun control but his actions in the last 6 years shows that he is for federal government control over eveyone.

    Yes, Bush is a religious leader and he is great at praying. Is that going to be the model for the rest of our leaders? Will we elect a Bush clone in 2008? Looks that way to me with the candidates who are too eager to support government controls.

  2. gene

    If people think that those twin towers crashed to the ground because they were hit by planes well think again. They were expertly blown down to include a third building that was not hit at all.
    Their is enough hard evidence to prove this and it says only one thing. This president as well as others in his gain are behind a wall of secrecy and evil. I am not sure of their goal or I guess I should say (goals) but total control has to be one.

    Beats me why anyone would want total control of millions of brain-dead americans waiting in line somewhere to purchase their next LCD. The same americans that are haveing children they DON’T need or can afford to properly take care of, buying 3,000 sq ft homes with adjusted rate mortgages, ie. (subprime crisis or is it crash) and on and on we go.

    I am truely sorry for what happen at this college and I know the families are suffering great pain just as the families of all those dead US soldiers. Lets us not forget the Iraq citizens who suffer everday because of Mr. “mission accomplished”. The hell and horror this white house has created and continues to create is truely beyond understanding.

    Their is NO doubt in my mine that our end is near and what we face I would not even want to see if it were a new movie coming out. God please help those who know the truth but have very little recourse to change the big picture.

  3. Timr

    Way back in the first years of the gwb administration he was thought to be a very good speaker, as would anyone who had his speech writers, but ever since his lead speech writer left, gwb has had a much harder time of it. I think that gwb has always been the poor little rich frat house boy, he has never really grown up. Like Mr Thompson has said in the past, gwb is a dry drunk. His early speechs came from the pen of a very talented writer, who has since left. This puts gwb in the position of not sounding or being very statesman like. Like the Texas saying goes, gwb is all hat, no cattle.

  4. kevns007

    GWB, as you guys say, is as bat-shit crazy as the murderer at VT. You people are delusional. Bush has never had a “finest hour!” What a joke. He’s a delusional, sociopathic meglomaniac who could, and likely will, snap any day now. Everything he’s ever said, or done for that matter, is scripted or it doesn’t make sense. He’s incapable of any empathy towards anybody’s grief or pain so anything he’s said about VT or any other national disaster is pure bullshit. For the first time in his addled life he’s facing fierce oppposition to his silver-spoon fed life, and only time will tell how he’s going to deal with it. My opinion is not very well and it will be us who will also pay the price. To compare Bush to any other President is plain stupid. He’s not sane, the others were.

  5. JudyB

    That a maniac shot down and killed 32 students and
    teachers while injuring 15 others at Virginia Tech makes any normal person heart sick. There is nothing myself nor anyone can do or say that will take the the pain away. The fact that many students will re-live the nightmare of their expeience over and over again makes me sick. It was the Presidents duty to show his support for the losses at Virginia Tech, but I will never understand how he could acknowledge this horror yet never find time to address the losses suffered by the families and troops that die or are severly injured DAILY in his oil war. These war deaths and injuries are taking place because of a war based on a lie that never had to happen. I cannot say that Bush was not shocked at what took place at Virgina tech, but I wish he would show more respect for out troops by doing the right thing and pulling out of Iraq..it would have given more credience to what he was trying to convey yesterday when he spoke..for me, they were just words spoken because he had to do his “duty” while he condones his murderous oil war

  6. Steve Horn

    “Bush’s bearing after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — tough yet empathetic — felt right to the public.” – are you kidding? He sat there reading a kiddie book with a stupified look on his face.

    While I and countless others lined up to donate blood Cheney and congress were heading for the hills, Bush was sequestered off in some bunker and the emergency responders were doing all they could to save lives.

    Then the idea hit – “war time president” – what he’d always wanted to be (obviously he’d not wanted to be a true warrior – he had his opportunity during Vietnam and decided he’d rather be a drunk). But a war time president – safe in the whitehouse while others died for his fame. That’s the ticket.

    Then reality set in – there’s no OIL in Afghanistan but there’s a BIG PUDDLE of it under Iraq – hey – daddy fought Iraq before – kicked their asses – nobody likes Saddam – I’ll go one better – I’ll LIE about WMD’s – I’ll get jackasses like RicKKK Santorum to lie with me – and I’ll invade Iraq – be a “liberator” – “mission accomplished” – (look at all that oil!) –

    Like most greed based ideas, this one failed, big time, but tripping over his ego, he sees no way out SO in an act representative of a true “hero” a true “leader” – he’ll keep kids dying in Iraq until HIS “war time presidency” is over – then it’s someone elses problem.

    See the shrub for what he is – a greedy little man with no spine, no ethics and no loyalty, except to himself.

    You know a man from the company he keeps. Rove, Cheney, Libby, Rumsfeld, Gonzalez …. what does that list of associates tell you about GW?



  7. SEAL

    Yanno Sandy, what is overlooked in the 10th is the last three words. The amendment says the powers are reserved to the states – comma – or the people.

    Those who have the interest to read them find that throughout the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution the bottom line in every thing is “the people.” It’s very easy to see that the founders primary intent was to rest the power and control of their new nation in the hands of the people. But, from the very first day, government has endeavored to take away that power and control. They have been very successfull. Today, people have completely lost the concept.