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An Opportunity for Leadership, Lost

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The Katrina Speech Bush Should Have Given

An Opportunity for Leadership, Lost

As some may have recognized in my last column, by my use of the words “disgusted, ”unburdened by principle,” “Big Government,” and “tartar sauce,” I was not very pleased with President Bush’s address to the Nation regarding the coming long-term response to Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath.

My disappointment focuses around several distinct points.  Primary among these is that I have had about all I can afford of “compassionate conservatism.”  Unnecessary deficit spending is neither conservative nor compassionate, and if someone discovers the budgetary difference between a compassionate conservative and a bleeding heart liberal, please, let me know.  So far, my best guess is that the government would not grow nearly so quickly under the liberal as it has under the profligate conservative.

My concern here is not just financial or economic, although only a fool would ignore all such concerns.  My concern is Freedom.  Money is power; and power is the source of all freedom.  Without it, you have none.  When more money is controlled by government, and not by individuals, we are all made less free.  This sort of thinking is what was once known as plain “Conservatism,” and it is pretty darn compassionate, since it seeks to liberate individuals from bureaucracy, dependency, and demoralizing levels of taxation.

Cutting spending is nearly impossible without a clear and overwhelming cause that moves people to admit that maybe some things are more important than Robert Byrd getting one more rest-stop named after himself in Justice, West Virginia.  Last week, Bush had such an overwhelming cause: the need to help several hundred thousand homeless Americans (and I mean really and suddenly homeless, not just bums).   He could have held this cause up in comparison to all manner of silliness and shamed much of the waste from our current budget.  We could then help our fellow Americans and not expand government nearly so much.

After the speech, the uproar to President Bush’s right caused him to then mention the need to cut other spending, but the grand opportunity was already lost.

My second major peeve is the paternalistic and politically correct manner in which Bush addressed the racial issues surrounding the disaster.  Being white and talking about race, however relevant the issue, is a little like juggling nitroglycerin while jumping on a trampoline.  It may be entertaining to watch from a safe distance, but there is considerable downside for the slightest misstep.  But I have no idea how we will ever improve race relations in America if one race is all but banned from creatively discussing the issue, so here goes.

The President said:

As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. And that poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.

He then went on to promise a variety of increased welfare and job training programs, and strongly implied increased affirmative action programs in the rebuilding effort. 

His statement is the standard apology for disproportionate black poverty, disproportionate black crime, and disproportionate black underachievement in America.  It is the bread and butter of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and the standard “Get out the vote” cry of the Democratic Party in the inner cities of America.

And it is simply hogwash.  If you were poor and black in 1955, you could offer this explanation for failure truthfully.  It no longer is very relevant.  No one has been cut off from the opportunity of America by external impediments for forty years.  The doors have been thrown open, the way lighted and the government has spent several trillion dollars attempting to guide poor blacks through the door.  Yet many remain inside the prison of poverty.  Racial discrimination, even if prevalent, cannot injure a people without other assistance.  Neither can simply being born into poverty. 

I have known many Jewish friends in my life, and to say that the Jewish people have had a bit of prejudice and discrimination thrown their way in the last 2000 years or so, would be something of an understatement.  Yet they prosper.

I have known many Asian friends whose parents came here penniless and in one case — quite literally — bearing the scars of napalm upon their backs.  Yet they prosper.

I have known many Hispanic friends who have sought the opportunity of America without a Federal roadmap.  Yet they prosper.

Many people have been poor.  Most peoples have known ethnic discrimination at some point in their past.  Yet most people prosper when external impediments are removed. 

When the President of the United States drags out tired and safe clichĂ?Ć? ©s about discrimination explaining current black poverty, he stifles the growing debate inside the black community on what internal cultural impediments need to be admitted and confronted. 

Such a statement does more to reinforce and justify failure than the weight of all modern discrimination combined.  It is wrong.

Lastly, the President repeatedly emphasized planning and Government action.  So many programs to be administered.  So many decisions to be made –by bureaucrats.  Except for certain hydraulic engineering decisions, why is any central planning needed?  Why can we not just cut a check to individuals, covering a portion of their uninsured losses (but by no means all their losses, lest we incentivize a return to the unsafe, unwise status quo ante), and allow them to decide whether they rebuild, where they rebuild, and how they rebuild?

Change is inevitable, New Orleans is no longer sustainable by its own financial resources.  Giving people a no-strings attached aid check allows them to rebuild in Baton Rouge or Chicago if they want.  This is not a bad thing.  It lessens the next disaster.  The Port and its workers will stay.  The French Quarter and its tourists will remain.  But do we really need to reclaim land at great Federal expense just to subsidize a telemarketing or insurance business that could easily exist thirty miles inland on higher ground?  Do we need to rebuild a housing project for the unemployed on expensively maintained land behind precarious levees?

Cities once waxed and waned naturally, and such natural change is a good thing.  Now the Federal Government decides that large cities will stay large, simply because they have been large.  If they cannot maintain their own grandeur, people in smaller cities are taxed to maintain it artificially — keeping the big bigger and the small smaller.  Is this freedom?  Is this efficiency? 

The President may yet enact wise policies, but he sure didn’t try to sell them last Thursday.  Leadership is not saying one thing and then sneaking in the right thing when no one’s looking.  Leadership is explaining what really needs to be done to solve problems –and changing people’s minds.  But leadership is politically expensive and the President is short on political capital just now.  Still, regardless of why, the fact remains that the President’s first explanation of his plan for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast was an opportunity for leadership, lost.

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Written By

Mr. Johnson, a writer and medical researcher in Cambridge, Mass., is a regular contributor to HUMAN EVENTS. His column generally appears on Tuesdays. Archives and additional material can be found at www.macjohnson.com.

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