White House Briefing

Was Kanye West Right?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, September 13, 2005; 12:06 PM

Rap star Kanye West's seemingly radical off-script assertion two weeks ago during a Hurricane Katrina telethon that "George Bush doesn't care about black people" has become a full-blown topic of public policy debate.

A slew of recent polls have found that large majorities of blacks believe that the federal response to Hurricane Katrina would have been considerably speedier had those trapped in New Orleans been rich and white, and that the slow response was an indication of continuing racial inequity in this country. Large majorities of whites disagree.

Most of the press coverage of these poll results has concentrated on the vast racial divide they expose. But that's not necessarily the biggest story.

The latest Gallup cuts to the chase and asks: "Do you think George W. Bush does - or does not - care about black people?"

Among blacks, 21 percent say he does and 72 percent say he doesn't.

Among whites, 67 percent say he does and 26 percent say he doesn't.

Overall, 62 percent say he does and 31 percent say he doesn't.

Obviously, that's a pretty dramatic rift. But consider the absolute numbers: Three out of four blacks, one out of four whites, and one out of three people across the country regardless of race actually believe that President Bush doesn't care about black people.

Sorry, but the question: "Does the president of the United State care about black people" should be a no-brainer. Of course he does should be the overwhelmingly common answer.

Here's a question for Washington's punditocracy: What percentage of people believing that the president doesn't care about black people should be considered alarming?

Bush and the White House are trying urgently to refute this belief with imagery from Bush's three (and soon to be four) trips to the region.

But at his morning photo-op yesterday, his first comments on the issue were far from comprehensive.

"Q Sir, what do you make of some of the comments that have been made by quite a number of people that there was a racial component to some of the people that were left behind and left without help?

"THE PRESIDENT: My attitude is this: The storm didn't discriminate, and neither will the recovery effort. When those Coast Guard choppers, many of whom were first on the scene, were pulling people off roofs, they didn't check the color of a person's skin. They wanted to save lives."

One could argue, of course, that the storm disproportionately impacted those who were left, abandoned by the government, in its path -- most of whom were black and poor. And while no one suggests that chopper pilots were racially selective about who they rescued, the real question is what took the choppers and the other rescuers so long? Why weren't there more of them?

Lisa de Moraes reported on West's criticism in The Washington Post on September 3.

Attack and Defense

Among Bush's leading critics, of course, is Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, who told Wolf Blitzer on CNN last week: "I do not think that this president cares about everybody in America. . . .

Or Is It More a Poverty Issue?

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The vivid images of poor residents, most of them African American, stranded across New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have generated more discussion in the nation's capital about poverty than any event in years. . . .

"[M]any analysts believe that the stark pictures of families trapped amid the rising waters have made the persistence of poverty tangible to many Americans in a way unmatched by years of government reports. On the day New Orleans flooded, in fact, the Census Bureau released an annual report showing that the number of Americans in poverty rose for the fourth consecutive year."

Bush To Speak

The White House announced this morning that Bush will address the nation from Louisiana on Thursday at 9 p.m. ET. "The president will talk to the American people about the recovery and the way forward on the longer-term rebuilding," spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Bush is also taking a few questions today after meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, though that comes after my early deadline today.

It's unlikely, however, that Bush will forthrightly confront a lot of the tougher questions facing him in either forum.

Bush has made it quite clear that he has no interest in addressing the one question uppermost on the press's -- and arguably the people's -- mind: How could this have happened on his watch?

And after a long period starting in November during which he held monthly press conferences, Bush hasn't taken more than a few questions at a time from the press corps in almost three and a half months -- since May 31.

But even in his short press availabilities, it would be worth trying to get meaningful answers about his state of mind. Because how he personally feels about the crisis and whether or not he shares the concerns of so many Americans is turning into a key issue. And ducking those sorts of questions is harder.

So here are some questions that might be more fruitful than others:

* Sir, what were your personal feelings when you first grasped the enormity of what had happened along the Gulf Coast? And about when was that?

* Sir, apparently many African Americans believe that the federal government was slow in rescuing people stranded in New Orleans because many of those people were black and poor. I know you've denied that was the case, but do you understand why they might feel that way?


* Sir, you've said countless times that you don't govern based on the polls. But can you explain the polls? You are not a popular president anymore. How do you think that happened?

* Sir, it is increasingly said that you operate in a bubble, sealing yourself away from dissenting voices, and on those rare occasions that people tell you bad news, you yell at them. Doesn't that make it harder for you to make intelligent decisions?

White House Briefing


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