In a media environment that had already generated hundreds of thousands of words about Hurricane Katrina, its aftermath and the response of the Bush administration, those seven words spoken by Grammy-winning rapper-producer Kanye West, at a concert fundraiser for Katrina victims on Sept. 2, 2005, distilled what many Americans believed about the 43rd president’s efforts on behalf on the flood-ravaged region. West was caught up in the moment of what was even then, three days after the floodwaters inundated the Crescent City, a still-evolving national event.
In the nearly five years since, with benefit of hindsight, it’s possible to put West’s outburst in a broader perspective — one that, with some research, yields facts more charitable to the Bush #43 legacy than one might expect.
Some of Bush’s initial responses to Katrina weren’t promising. Early on Aug. 30, a day after the hurricane breached the levees protecting the Lower Ninth Ward, President Bush (returning early from vacation) went to a V-J Day commemoration ceremony in southern California, keeping tabs on the situation in the Gulf through communications with his aides.
And most dramatically, for a culture enamored of the visual, White House photos of Bush surveying the devastation overhead from the safety of Air Force One as he got back from that vacation helped to fuel the narrative of tone-deaf indifference that made Kanye’s outburst not so much possible as inevitable.
Those missteps made the headlines. But President Bush signed a $10.5 billion Katrina relief package on Sept. 2, literally hours after the House approved it, a day after the Senate approved the measure, and the same day Kanye West spoke out.
And on Sept. 1, President Bush asked former president Bill Clinton and his own father, former President George H.W. Bush, to spearhead the fundraising efforts that would eventually become the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, a 501©(3) charitable organization created as an umbrella for money from three states (Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama) to help those displaced with their immediate needs and with long-term recovery assistance.
According to the fund website, as of July 2007 (the most recent update available), more than $130 million had been raised via private donations for Gulf Coast relief — money used for a wide range of restoration efforts throughout the region.
Regardless of the inconsistency of Bush’s public face of concern, the Katrina fund and its rapid creation undercut the meme of Bush-as-heartless-ideologue.
The 43rd president’s recent efforts with Clinton on behalf of Haitian earthquake relief does more of the same. At President Obama’s request, Bush and Clinton took charge of the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund, established on Jan. 16, days after the Haitian earthquake that eventually killed more than 500,000 people and displaced millions more. The nonprofit has distributed millions in Haiti for job creation and training, microloans to Haitian businesses, reforestation efforts and initiatives to revitalize the local agriculture. In July, the “Hope for Haiti Now” telethon launched by George Clooney, donated $5 million to the Clinton-Bush effort.
George Bush runs no risk of being re-branded for the history books as an overlooked champion of black and minority aspirations. It’s difficult to reconcile the George Bush who aided disaster victims with the George Bush who condemned the admissions system at the University of Michigan, which used race as one of several factors to determine admissions qualification, as “unfair and impossible to square with the Constitution” — and doing it on what would have been Martin Luther King’s 74th birthday.
It’s a challenge to recognize that the President Bush who broke ground by appointing the first two African-American secretaries of state in the nation’s history is the same President Bush who, in January 2004, nominated Judge Charles Pickering to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, despite Pickering’s attempts to curb remedies provided by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and his criticism of the principle of “one-person, one-vote” enshrined as law by the Supreme Court.
It’s hard to square Bush’s evident concerns about Katrina with the fact that, in the two State of the Union addresses that followed Katrina, in 2006 and 2007, the hurricane and the recovery process were scarcely mentioned.
Maybe this Janus-like approach to domestic politics and humanistic policy will be explained when Bush’s memoir, Decision Points, hits the bookshelves Nov. 9. But five years after he faced the breadth, speed and impact of the single most devastating meteorological event in the nation’s history, it’s clear that George Bush was overwhelmed, humbled and motivated by Hurricane Katrina.
Just like Kanye West, and everyone else.