9/15/2005

Oregonian Editorial : Faith in each other, lost in the waters

Almost exactly 200 years ago..Thomas Jefferson ..bought a million square miles of Louisiana in order to get New Orleans.. So ..what started with a Continental Congress became a continental nation. It built a government that could win two world wars and go to the moon and create both the highest standard of living in the world and a safety net to try to keep the most vulnerable Americans from dying in the street. And when disaster struck ..Americans moved swiftly to support each other.. Americans prided themselves on being good at taking on the worst problems.

An effective government, a government that Americans can believe in and count on, doesn't have to be blown up from the sky. It can be washed away in the street.


Faith in each other, lost in the waters
Wednesday, September 07, 2005
David Sarasohn

It's a favorite line of Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform and one of the most influential and aggressive of the movement conservatives, and it always goes over big with his audiences.

"I don't want to abolish government," explains Nor- quist. "I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."

Last week, we learned that you don't need a bathtub.

You can drown Americans' belief in government in the streets of New Orleans.

Looking across a week and thousands of square miles of devastation, politicians piously rejected a "blame game," and some blames are indeed hard to fix. The levee support budgets have been cut recently, but they've been dismissed in the past as well. Last Monday, people thought New Orleans had escaped Katrina, and the last thing heard before the waters rushed in was a sigh of relief.

But after the flood happened, it took days of survivors baking on roofs, and tens of thousands of lives disintegrating in the convention center and the Superdome, before the response approached the size of the disaster. In its new reorganization, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, stocked with political aides and roommates -- apparently a strategy of catastrophe by crony -- turned out to have the reaction time of a giant sloth.

For days, Americans watched as New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast decomposed, getting their information from journalists who apparently could get to places federal aid couldn't. Television specializes in death watches, but nobody could remember one for a city.

The Bush administration turned to its usual strategies. Bringing back one of its greatest hits from the Southeast Asian tsunami, it brought out former presidents Bush and Clinton to lead private fund-raising -- although the victims in this case are not Sri Lankans but U.S. citizens, and the first step in their survival shouldn't be the government passing the hat.

The president continued on to invoke the private "armies of compassion," who are indeed vital in this situation, except the armies of compassion don't have things like C-130 transport airplanes.

Then it was hinted that the real problems were the Democratic governor of Louisiana and mayor of New Orleans, and there's certainly enough blame, like floodwater, to go around. On the other hand, across the river in Mississippi, with two high-ranking GOP senators and a former Republican national chairman as governor, Biloxi and Gulfport also rotted in the sun for days.

Eventually, even Trent Lott was publicly annoyed.

So by the second week, as Karl Rove had taken charge of the recovery -- not the Gulf recovery, the Bush recovery -- the president was proclaiming himself appalled and vowing to get to the bottom of the problems, and tossing around restoration numbers with more zeroes than the FEMA organizational chart. "Bureaucracy is not going to stand in the way of getting the job done for the people," Bush declared, as though he were helpless before his own appointees.

Right now, it's hard to know exactly where this all goes. The most notable remains of New Orleans are its citizens, scattered across the country like ducks after a gunshot, dispersed without jobs or housing. Reinforcing them will be as important as reinforcing the levee.

On the other hand, dealing with needy people isn't exactly this administration's strong point.

Almost exactly 200 years ago, this city was the birthplace of the idea of a strong national government, when Thomas Jefferson -- not quite sure he had the power to do it -- bought a million square miles of Louisiana in order to get New Orleans. The spot of land near the bottom of the Mississippi, under a lake that was actually an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico, was essential for the future of all of America west of the Appalachian mountains.

So Jefferson made his deal, and what started with a Continental Congress became a continental nation. It built a government that could win two world wars and go to the moon and create both the highest standard of living in the world and a safety net to try to keep the most vulnerable Americans from dying in the street.

And when disaster struck -- hurricane or earthquake or terrorist attack -- Americans moved swiftly to support each other, with skills and technology that also allowed them to combat catastrophe all over the world.

Americans prided themselves on being good at taking on the worst problems.

An effective government, a government that Americans can believe in and count on, doesn't have to be blown up from the sky.

It can be washed away in the street.

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