Overdue reality checks

When President Bush was asked at his recent press conference why electricity still is erratic in Iraq, he agreed it’s a major priority, exclaiming, “I mean, it’s hot over there!”

Aside from the domestic and international political ramifications of his short, unannounced trip to Baghdad, his visit gave him a vital idea of what Iraq, the country that has taken up the lion’s share of his presidency, feels like. For a president who prides himself on his people skills, the trip was invaluable.

Same thing for the much-maligned Michael Chertoff, head of the Department of Homeland Security. Remembering the e-mails about breached levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina that arrived in his computer after he’d gone home, he now eschews e-mails and demands personal updates from his staff. He also says he is now personally traveling to the Gulf region to watch relief drills.

If there’s been a constant refrain from ex-presidents, it’s been a realization of how cloistered the White House is. Before they know it, presidents become isolated. They hear only what aides want them to hear _ and who would want to deliver bad news to the world’s most powerful man? This president has boasted that he doesn’t even read newspapers or watch TV, unless an article is copied for him or a videotape is made for him.

As for Chertoff, his background as a judge steeped in paperwork makes it natural for him to find it difficult to get out of the office. As disaster-preparedness officials around the country complain that nearly five years after 9/11 they still don’t have the proper communications equipment, it’s good that a top official is finally getting out of Washington to see the problems of first-responders firsthand.

As for Hurricane Katrina’s hapless victims, still mired in bureaucracy and hopelessness, still living in cramped trailers and finding it difficult to pull their lives back together, it’s depressing that only one in five House members and fewer than one out of two senators have even bothered to travel to the Gulf to see the massive destruction.

In an age where people walk down the street with their noses buried in Blackberries and with cell phones stuck to their ears, we, oddly, are losing our communication skills. Especially in Washington, people talk at each other and past each other, but rarely with each other. Check out a congressional hearing on C-SPAN to hear legislators asking their staff-prepared questions without even listening to the answers. Better yet, come to the nation’s capital and see for yourself.

Less and less can we even rely on our newspapers and TV news programs for adequate information. The news business is cutting staff, cutting travel by reporters and cutting investigative reporting in pursuit of pleasing stockholders and Wall Street who care less about community service and more about higher profits.

The rest of the world knows more and more about America. America knows less and less about the rest of the world.

Bush says he doesn’t pay attention to polls, but they prompted him to form an Iraq study group. The members of that group are telling: former Secretary of State James Baker; former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., who co-chaired the now-defunct 9/11 Commission; former CIA Director Robert Gates; former Bill Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan; former Attorney General Ed Meese; former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor; former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta; former Defense Secretary William Perry; and former U.S. Sens. Chuck Robb, D-Va., and Alan Simpson, R-Wyo.

Yes, they are all “formers.” But what a wealth of bipartisan experience! We can be sure their meetings are lively and their advice candid. Bush may or may not take it, but you can bet they were in favor of the president’s travel to Iraq to see for himself a little of the country he’s committed this country to fight in for the foreseeable future.

So, yes, it’s hot in Iraq. It’s hot in the Gulf. It’s hot in D.C. And it’s time the administration experienced the heat. We need leaders who go on fewer junkets and more fact-finding missions and talk _ really talk and really listen _ to real people.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)