Saturday, January 01, 2005

On Vacation

Holiday travel and associated fatigue, a slight cold, and a mental numbness caused by the images from the Indian Ocean have conspired to delay postings on this blog. Words, especially written words, often fail when confronted with events. Silence and pre-language thoughts from the older parts of our brains sometimes better capture the moment and bring us closer to the truth. What finally triggers feeble attempts to express ourselves using language is often small, trifling to the moment. Such a moment for me occurred last night listening to David Brooks on PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

Mr. Brooks, who writes editorials for the New York Times, reassured us that the reason our President took so long to make an appropriate public response to the disaster in countries affected by the tsunami was that that he, and his staff, was on vacation. He was on vacation.

If the event itself were not so utterly awful, the pain and suffering so deep and wide, it might be appropriate to string together some semi-humorous comments along familiar lines about our President's character, work habits, or his official representation of our country to the rest of the world. Or it might be time to call out those who make excuses for him. But there is nothing clever to say. This time it is so not funny.

I was appalled from the first moment I heard of our initial aid response. My heart sunk as I realized that even after four years in office the man still does not understand what it takes to be the leader of the world's only superpower. Now that he - and we - have been shamed into taking a substantial public role in the aid to the victims of the largest international natural disaster in recent memory both the White House and their apologists in the media have started the process of spinning events, rewriting history.

It may be petty on my part to focus only on one individual. There are so many characters in this tragedy, so many interesting threads to follow. But last night David Brooks seemed to me to represent how far we have fallen as a people. Here was a man with a first-rate brain publicly putting it to a third-rate purpose. It was almost as painful for me to watch as the reports from the Indian Ocean.

If Mr. Brooks actually worked for the White House his comments would be understandable, if still not honorable. But he works for a newspaper, arguably our greatest newspaper. He has a long successful career in journalism. But somewhere along the way he must have decided that events can (or should) only be reported to the rest of us from within the framework of an ideology. And events that do not later reflect well on that ideology, or those who give it form, must be retold in different light.

Our country's slow and initially inadequate response to this terrible tragedy was clear from the start, to the rest of the world and even to unnamed others at the New York Times. It was a mistake of judgment by our President and his advisors that I am certain they now regret. Not to acknowledge that fact is the first step toward making the same mistake again. Given our President's well-document inability to remember his mistakes it is up to the rest of us to remind him. Unfortunately Mr. Brooks invited us last night to give the President a pass. After all, he was on vacation.


Anonymous said...

From: Kevin Terminella

Bibb, I do feel like I have to straighten out a few things....

#1 Because Bush didn't rush back to the White House, don't mean that he doesn't care.

From an interview with Kofi Annan on 12/20:
"'Q: Mr. Secretary, picking up on Richard's question, I think a lot of people are asking exactly why you waited three days on vacation in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, before you decided to fly back to New York in the face of this extraordinary crisis. Could you give us a full explanation of your thinking on that? Secondly, what kind of signal does that 72-hour delay send to the nations to which you are now appealing for greater help?

SG: First of all, there was action. It wasn't inaction. We live in a world where you can operate from wherever you are. You know the world we live in now. You don't have to be physically here to be dealing with the leaders and the Governments I have been dealing with. You don't have to be physically here to be discussing with some of the agencies that we have done.

I came back here because we have reached a level that I wanted to have meetings with all the people that I have met with today. So, we have taken action. And I don't have to be sitting in my office to take action. I think the same goes for you in your profession."


#2 The $35 Million that was appropriated initially was never meant to be the total amount of help that the US would give. The agency that distributes that type of aid ran out of money with the first pledge.

"First, the U.S. Agency for International Development, which distributes foreign aid, will have to ask for more money, since the initial $35 million aid package drained its emergency relief fund, said Andrew Natsios, the agency's administrator."


Anonymous said...

From Kevin Terminella:

A correction on my earler post, the quote from Kofi was from 12/30 not 12/20.

Bibb said...


Mr. Brooks could not have said it better. Have you two been back channeling on me? But I am not sure that the quotes from Mr. Annan or Mr. Natsios help the general impression that our administration was anything but slow and weak in responding or Mr. Brooks’ role in journalism. But since you brought them up...

#1 - Mr. Brooks, and then you, mentioned "...didn't rush back to the White House..." Even though I generally agree with Mr. Annan's comments you quote about the modern ability to take care of business from just about anywhere, a ski resort or a Texas ranch, I don't remember travel issues being raised, at least by me. What I was, and am, referring to was the time delay measured in days while the world waited to hear from the leader of the United States of America, not the famously out-of-loop Secretary of State, not the UN. Mr. Annan's activities, although significant in his role in international affairs, did not appear in my comments. Do you have an endless supply of red herring?

What Mr. Bush cares about (which is probably no more knowable than for the rest of us) is less significant than what he does. Even if he was personally bereft and was actively involved in mounting a relief effort in those first days, there was little indication. This administration has been especially skillful in controlling its "messages." I am afraid that this time they sent an accurate one to the rest of the world that they now regret. With so little smoke just how much of a fire could there have been down in Texas?

Before I leave #1 I can't help but smile at your use of Mr. Annan also being on vacation to explain or deflect my comments given the well established lack of respect and support for both this Secretary General and the U.N. by the administration. Ironic. Cheeky. Worthy of Mr. Brooks.

#2 - The initial amount offered by Mr. Powell on the 28th was $15 million, less than half the $35 million you mentioned. That was the response I was referring to. To my ears, and most others it seems, that was akin to leaving $1 to a relative in a will.

I have no doubt that Mr. Natsios was correct in that even a $35 million pledge would drain his availible funds. However internal accounting issues within the Federal budget were not the focus of my post. It seemed obvious from the start that any appropriate amount of money from us would likely exceed any previously budgeted disaster aid related line item. His comments, though accurate, are beside the point, especially since the President has upped the amount to $350 million. More dead fish.

That the international relief response now contains elements of pledge warfare is sad. But I think we started it by our opening bid, inviting shaming. And given our recent history of promising big and delivering small - did you actually read the 12/30 NY Times editorial - the world's skepticism has some justification.

I think you missed the entire point of my post. It was about Mr. Brooks not Mr. Bush. It was triggered by Brooks’ comment that we should cut the President some slack because he - and much of his staff - was on vacation. Thus the title. I was hoping for a little candor, maybe a little honesty. Maybe what I wanted to hear was that the President simply initially misunderstood the seriousness of the situation and did not appreciate the opportunities it presented. That was understandable. I wanted to hear that now, in the fullness of time, the President was responding appropriately. But what we all heard was just pathetic. Vacation. First rate mind, third rate excuse. Maybe you had to have been there.

Further, by offering what he must have thought a mitigating factor he also seems to be agreeing that there was something inadequate in the initial response. I hope the NewsHour will post a transcript of his comments at some point so you may read for yourself just what I was reacting to.

The heart of my post is paragraphs four and five, a lament on the increasingly obvious blurring between opinion, partisan spin and news. Mr. Brooks is an active participant in this declining distinction and the subsequent declining opinion the public has of our news sources. He is very intelligent, knowledgeable, and skillful at consistently presenting events from a particular point of view. That an employee of the NYTimes does so as a regular guest on the NewsHour just makes it harder for the rest of us to distinguish fact from fiction, news from manipulation. He is very good at what he does. I just think what he does is not very good.

Finally, since you want to make Mr. Bush the focus here rather than Mr. Brooks as I intended, grappling with the consequences of such an unprecedented natural disaster, especially in the part of the world where it occurred, has been a real challenge for all concerned. As a country and a world community we have yet to establish adequate institutions capable of appropriate aid when needed. Any U.S. administration would be struggling about now to turn any promises into food, clothing, and shelter.

What is unfortunate about this administration’s response was the wasted opportunity to quickly show the world our best efforts. If we are truly at war for the hearts and minds of the world's citizens, especially those of the Muslim faith, we did little last week to help our cause.

Anonymous said...

From Kevin:

I can't say for sure, but I'm not sure that the White House would agree with Mr. Brook's defense of the president's response.

I found the following article that was published the day after this tragedy and it does a good job of showing the administration's initial response:

I really don't believe that the $15 million given on 12/26 was ever meant to be indicative of our total committment to this. For comparison's sake, the EU (which is kicking our butt with respects to the $/Euro) offered an initial aid package of $4 million, on the same day we announced our $15 million.

Do I think that Bush missed an opportunity to be a leader on the day of or after the tsunami? Yes, I do.

Do I think that it is fair to say that the US is being stingy (or ever planned on being stingy) with respect to our aid for victims of the tsunami? No, I don't.

One thought........why doesn't our good friend in Redmond cut a check and take care of it all? Talk about an easy way to get a Nobel Peace prize...or at least a Time "Person of the Year" award.... (The preceding paragraph is partially tongue in cheek.) is late, so my spelling is suspect....

Also, can you send me your phone number via email? Thanks!

Bibb said...

I think we are finally almost getting on the same page.

Your use of the word "is" in your fourth paragraph is significant. I agree with you. Public and private aid (with or without Mr. Gates) from our country will, I trust, prove sufficient, effective and timely.

However that was not what I was posting about. I was posting about the latest of Mr. Brooks' lame-ass, cleverly spun excuses for this administration. If there are left in the White House any staffers with more intellectual honesty than fealty to the person of the President, I am sure they wince from time to time when Mr. Brooks speaks.

What should have been done on Monday would have been the President standing in front a TV camera expressing shock, condolences, and pledging to do what ever we could to aid the victims, attaching no specific dollar value to the effort. That is what you would have done and what I would have done. To trot out Mr. Powell - a short-timer on a short leash - to announce such small sums was a mistake. He did the best he could with the cards handed him. All that was missing was the clown suit. The role of Mr. Powell within this administration will certainly be the source of much analysis in years to come. He has deserved better.

On Tuesday the President was, according to the AP pool reporter, "biking," "strolling around his ranch," and "pondering tax reform." Trent Duffy, White House deputy press secretary, said that morning the President was "clearing some brush." The AP reporter did further state that besides "having some friends over" he was "monitoring the disaster." So was I and most of the rest of the world.

Finally on Wednesday we actually saw the President, who, by this time, seems to be as interested in defending himself as taking the leadership role that we would have expected. At this point I think he told us more than he realized when he said that the disaster was "beyond our comprehension." So much is.

This was more than just a missed opportunity. It was a failure. That we are now finally taking care of business does not change that. This failure was interpreted around the world as just the latest example of our administration's lack of understanding and caring for the people of the world. It was a chance to change this perception, not to further it. He didn't.

Reality and perceptions follow each other like a dog and its tail. Take care of reality and perceptions follow along nicely. Where we have gone wrong is trying to change perceptions without changing reality. That never really works much better than a dog trying to walk backwards.

Gee, I wish you hadn't used the term "partially tongue in cheek" to describe your comment suggesting that Mr. Gates fund our disaster response. I'll just forget the word "partially" if you don't mind.