RITA'S LESSONS

This time, President Bush was not going to be caught out of position. He had flown to Colorado to the headquarters of Northern Command, the military nerve center for protecting the continental United States. "Northcom" is just across an air base from Cheyenne Mountain, where cold warriors had once watched for Soviet nuclear-missile attacks. A few hours after Hurricane Rita came ashore on the Texas-Louisiana border at dawn on Saturday, Bush sat in the Northcom Situation Room, looking at large flat screens filled with satellite images of the storm, graphics of troop deployments, and the faces of his commanders, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The president was hearing mostly good news. The storm, though strong, was not a Category 4 or 5 monster. The vast network of refineries and oil platforms seemed to mostly withstand the 120-mile-an-hour winds and 15-foot storm surge. It would take weeks to get the gulf oil industry fully back online, and fuel prices were sure to go up. But the storm did not appear to have wrecked the economy or claimed hundreds of lives.

The president didn't look all that relieved or happy, however. His eyes were puffy from lack of sleep (he had been awakened all through the night with bulletins), and he seemed cranky and fidgety. A group of reporters and photographers had been summoned by White House handlers to capture a photo op of the commander in chief at his post. Bush stared at them balefully. He rocked back and forth in his chair, furiously at times, asked no questions and took no notes. It almost seemed as though he resented having to strike a pose for the press.

The Feds were much better prepared for Rita than Katrina. But in the balky machinery of coordinating state, federal and local governments, foul-ups were bound to happen. Having underreacted to Katrina, government officials--as well as the anxious public--were taking no chances with Rita. The result was a traffic jam that looked like a scene out of "Deep Impact," or, worse, the aftermath of a dirty bomb exploding in an American city.

"If you're in the storm's path, you need to get gone. You need to be on the road," said Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Wednesday, as Rita strengthened in the gulf. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco was more lurid. She warned stay-behinds to write their Social Security numbers on their arms with indelible ink. The people of Texas and Louisiana, still in shock from the TV images of Katrina's devastation, got the message. Along the Gulf Coast south of Houston, the plan contemplated that 1.25 million people would evacuate. Twice that number took to the highways. They were caught in a hellish gridlock. Cars ran out of gas and had to be pushed off the road; babies and old people suffered in the 100-degree heat; a bus full of nursing-home refugees caught fire and exploded, probably because so many of the elderly brought oxygen tanks.

The finger-pointing, though restrained, started right away. Local politicians blamed the state Department of Transportation for waiting too long to ease the jam by funneling outbound traffic into inbound lanes. Houston Mayor Bill White criticized as "totally unacceptable" the state's failure to carry out a plan to stash fuel supplies at rest stops. City and state officials began worrying about a massive tie-up as citizens returned after the storm. They blitzed the airwaves pleading with evacuees to stay put, exactly the opposite of what they were saying before the storm hit.

No matter how much and how carefully governments plan, someone always fails to get the message. Thursday night, Harris County (Houston) officials were scrambling to tap stockpiles of gasoline for motorists and municipal vehicles. They managed to get a Shell Oil official to go to a refinery--but couldn't gain entry. "We had the truck. We were at the refinery. But we couldn't find the guy with the keys," lamented Judge Robert Eckels, the main county official who briefed reporters.

And so what can Americans learn from this month of destruction and near destruction, of Category 3s and Category 4s, of slow presidential reflexes and presidential hyperactivity? The possible lessons go beyond natural disasters, as important as natural disasters and their many victims are. In an age in which terrorists have successfully struck the American homeland and hope to do so again, the 2005 hurricane season has made a seemingly boring quality of leadership sexy again: competence.

That Bushes aren't very good at managing affairs on the home front is a familiar refrain in our recent political life. When Michael Dukakis ran against George H.W. Bush in 1988, the Massachusetts governor declared that "this election isn't about ideology. It's about competence." Bush thrashed him, in part by depicting Dukakis as a cold technocrat who did not understand what the senior Bush calls "the heartbeat" of the country. Then, four years later, amid a recession, Bill Clinton said that if Bush wasn't going to cut government he should use it more effectively. "I know how President Lincoln felt when General McClellan wouldn't attack in the Civil War: 'If you are not going to use your Army, may I borrow it?' " Clinton said in 1992. Now Bush 43 is vulnerable--not in an election, but in his next campaign, for his place in memory and history--to the same attacks, which explains why he was at Northcom.

Bush's presidency post 9/11 and his re-election were based on the hope and expectation of his ability to lead in crisis. There was nothing subtle or in any way ambivalent about the way Bush presented himself as the Man in Charge. Criticized (by pundits, by Europeans, even by his wife) for swaggering, Bush continued to play the cowboy and look as though he was enjoying it. When election time came around, the Republicans played the role of the "Daddy" party (as opposed to the Democrats, the "Mommy" party), the kind of hard guys you wanted around when the going got tough.

Having raised expectations so high, it was probably inevitable that Bush would disappoint. Especially during the run-up to the Iraq war and the 2004 campaign, Bush was not above stirring up a little fear. Now he is trying, a little too hard, perhaps, to reassure the public that his government really is able to cope with chaos. Four years after 9/11, many Americans are still anxiously waiting for the next attack. Hurricane Katrina served as a frightening sneak preview, testing the government's reaction to catastrophe. Bush and his handlers last week went to great lengths to erase the image, left over from Katrina, of the president's fiddling (actually, pretending to play a guitar after a rally in San Diego) while New Orleans sank.

The president made no effort to play down hurricanes as natural calamities that are unavoidable and hence uncontrollable. Instead, he reinforced the link between hurricanes and terrorism, suggesting that Osama bin Laden must have been pleased with the havoc wreaked by Katrina. When Rita threatened, Bush took personal control of the disaster preparations. He was so deep in the details that he supervised, via videoconference from his Northcom command post, the evacuation of a single hospital in Beaumont, Texas, to make sure the Feds and the state were taking the right steps and talking to each other. When his briefers reported that local governments were being faxed legal waivers to expedite the cleanup, the president helpfully pointed out that many local officials still don't have working fax machines. (Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff assured him that his people were making follow-up phone calls.)

It is probably not realistic to expect government to rise above human frailty in a crisis. The press holds Bush to a shifting standard: he was badgered by reporters for not going right to the scene of the disaster after Katrina, then criticized for "getting in the way" when he wanted to go to Texas before Rita. Bush canceled the pre-Rita trip, and he was probably right about not wanting to rush to the scene afterward. On Saturday afternoon, as reporters and advance men in Bush's entourage squeezed into the Texas emergency-ops center, a worker handling requests for generators cried out, "Whose idea was this? I can't do my work! I am about to really lose it!" Last week long lines of passengers trying to flee Houston snaked out of George H.W. Bush airport because about half the federal security screeners had failed to show up for work. Presumably, they were on the road like everyone else.

The bureaucracy makes a convenient target. Even Bush has blamed it, though he is in charge of the government. At the same time, there have been countless acts of human courage and decency over the past month--cops protecting houses after their own had been destroyed, Coast Guard swimmers rescuing diehard New Orleanians who fled or fought back; doctors and nurses going hungry so that their patients could eat. Individual resourcefulness may be a better hope in a crisis than government planning. Americans have a knack for turning disaster into opportunity. In New Orleans, for instance, Katrina exposed the plight of poor blacks left behind in the inner city. The city is alive now with plans for creative restoration and rebuilding a racially mixed, healthier city. Much of the impetus comes from the private sector, sometimes working in partnership with government. Philanthropist Eli Broad, for instance, is talking to the New Orleans public-school system about funding five model charter schools. (Technology would be provided, gratis, by Bill Gates and Microsoft.)

As a conservative, Bush would rather let the private sector carry as much of the burden as possible. Last week he was drawing on his own experience as a former oilman to delve into the technical details of the threatened refineries and pipelines. But if he wants to restore his image as a can-do leader, he is going to need to find a way to better prepare his own government for the next disaster. In his book "Catastrophe," Judge Richard Posner notes that because really unthinkable events--an asteroid's striking a city, say, or a global plague--seem so hard to grasp and so remote, humans do not prepare for them. But, as Posner warns, in a world of climate change and proliferating weapons of mass destruction, catastrophe is a real and growing risk. Posner would put society on a more proactive footing, trading off some civil liberties for security. Public-opinion polls suggest that faith in Bush's competence is sagging. But there are a lot of storm systems yet to come--and three years is time enough for Bush to show that his leadership means more than staging heroic poses.

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