Reporter's Notebook: Bush Wings it Through Rita

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George Bush has become a hurricane hunter. Like those pilots who fly into the storm, Bush has been criss-crossing the country looking for the best ways to show that he’s offering a competent and compassionate response to Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. Yesterday, he cancelled a trip to Texas at the last minute, flying straight to Colorado where he could visit the military’s Northern Command and follow the progress of Rita from there. Apparently the word didn’t reach the rest of the staff so a hundred reporters, including this one, went on to Texas anyway. Bush spoke to reporters a few moments ago after he came out of the Northern Command saying “the first order of business” is to dispatch search-and-rescue teams to the Rita-ravaged areas of Texas and Louisiana and urging evacuees to heed warnings about returning home to soon.

Bush aides pride themselves on their crisp scheduling but Bush is winging it—literally—day by day. As I write this in Colorado Springs, reporters and staff know that we’re bound to Austin today to visit the state’s emergency command center and that we’re scheduled to overnight in San Antonio—close enough to the storm to show Bush cares, far enough away from the action not to get too much in the way. As for when we return to Washington, the White House isn’t saying. Originally, officials said they expected to return on Sunday but there’s now talk that we could stay on the road through Monday or Tuesday to allow Bush a chance to inspect the damage from Rita. White House officials are still awaiting damage assessments from Rita and are keeping an eye on the likely flooding to come.

All of this is vastly different from how Bush handled Katrina, of course. Indeed, during Bush’s presidency his policy has not been to visit the site of a disaster until well after the storm had passed. The president doesn’t want to get in the way, aides would say. But that was before Katrina and the bipartisan attacks on the federal response to the storm. Now the president is doing everything he can to show he’s on top of the situation. But it may be the case that his actions have an undesired effect—making him look too cloying and calculating. And, of course, the angry response to Katrina wasn’t just about Bush’s seeming indifference—although that played a part in it. Most of it was surely about the poor response of, as White House officials like to say in a dig at state and local officials, “all levels of government.” If FEMA does well, if the response works, where Bush gets photographed really won’t matter.