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