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Sep 14, 2005

The Week America Lost New Orleans: A Presidential Retrospective (#3)


Katrina Disaster -- Day 3
Wednesday, August 31, 2005

As the Gulf Coast disaster spins out of control, most of us see this picture (taken by Mannie Garcia of Reuters) and conclude that the President is out of touch.

However, in light of the incompetence that follows; the time lines that will document that incompetence; and, especially, the accounts that will emerge of President Bush's actions, access and state of mind over these days, it will become evident that this picture says more (and that other versions will say still more).

For example, Garcia's shot reveals Bush in his "Commander In Chief" jacket with the large presidential logo on one side and his name and title stitched on the other.  Realizing he had better start looking on top of things -- and with the New Orleans fly-by already arranged -- isn't his clothing the one one prop he has to work with?  As a man of gesture -- in lieu of the real thing -- the jacket is meant to remind that he's somehow in charge.  (Unfortunately, the picture turns out to be so damning, nobody notices the jacket -- which suggests that the only person assuaged by the attire is probably Bush himself.)


The "out takes" (by which I mean, the wire photos that didn't circulate widely because they weren't as "fit" as Mannie's) suggest even more, however.  Bush's expression in this home run photo by AP's Susan Walsh might turn out to be one of the more revealing portraits of the Bush presidency.  Sadly, it is reminiscent of the "My Pet Goat" photo taken on the morning of 9/11.  In this case, however, the "Oh my God" is replaced with a look of "What the hell do you expect me to do about it?"  Clearly, its a rare glimpse of Bush without the mask, or the script, or the teleprompter, or the Rove or Cheney, or the transmitter -- and he knows it.


Of the many "out take" images, this one is also interesting -- if not somewhat more associative.  (I guess it would be too easy to say it's literally a guy in the dark.) 

What is unique about this shot is that it's the only one that manages to depict Bush and New Orleans at the same time.  Because we can see that he sees it, this photo (more than the others) serves as a visual indictment of Bush's absence from a situation he is clearly responsible for. 

Just as powerfully, however, what the image also represents is the extent to which Bush remains encapsulated in his own confined world.  The image reinforces the understanding that Bush remains walled off at all times, with only the most distant and fragmentary perception of what is going on outside.

Finally, I cannot emphasized enough how absolutely staged these images are.

Of course, that might seem obvious upon making the statement -- especially if you share my politics.  Because of the assuming nature of a photo, however (with its suggestion of reality and its emotional draw), it is always going to pull for acceptance of the spin. 

On the other hand, it is much harder to take the President's posturing at face value when you can see evidence of the stage and the actor, one pose after another.  At that point, you can see that this is simply a photo shoot, and the President, rather than being somebody at this critical moment, is trying to look like someone instead.

(By the way, my last "contact strip" below shows Bush's actual view of the Superdome -- three and a half days before it will ultimately be evacuated.)






(The other entries in this series are available here.)

(image 1: REUTERS/Mannie Garcia. Air Force One of New Orleans. August 31, 2005. At YahooNews.  image 2: AP/Susan Walsh. Air Force One of New Orleans. August 31, 2005. At YahooNews.  image 3: AP/Susan Walsh. Air Force One of New Orleans. August 31, 2005. At YahooNews.  filmstrip 1-5 (all August 31, 2005.  All from YahooNews):  1. (Mannie Garcia/Reuters) 2. (AFP/File/Jim Watson) 3. (Mannie Garcia/Reuters) 4. (AFP/Jim Watson) 5.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh/ Canadian Press) 6.  (AFP/Jim Watson) 7. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) 8. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) 9. REUTERS/Mannie Garcia 10.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) 11.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) 12. & 14. The Superdome (AFP/Jim Watson)13. The Superdome. (Mannie Garcia/Reuters).)


Thank you for reminding us that this is a staged photo shoot, the fly-over a White House photo op. Seeing the second photo in particular, which ran with a news story in the first week of Katrina, I had the impression Bush was caught in an unguarded moment, maybe even having an epiphany. It becomes inreasingly clear that none of his moments is "unguarded", all are totally staged.

Can you talk at all about the body language of his hands? He often looks as if he doesn't know what to do with them, as if they are awkward appendages over which he has no control.

You are right on the money with this. Everyone seems to have forgotten that Bush flew over NO and the Gulf States on Wednesday and "saw" the destruction with his own eyes. Yet it didn't sink in to his thick skull or, apparently, to anyone else on AF1. Wasn't everybody on that plane overwhelmed by what they saw? Wasn't the purpose of the fligh over to assess damage? Was it just to take a photo?

Aren't the photographers and the rest of the press on AF1 complicit in the lack of response? I mean, how can anybody see this stuff and not start talking immediately to the president about what he is seeing? Is everybody around this guy a robot?

I am consistently overwhelmed by this man's inability to respond on a visceral level to anything.

"It's devastating. It's got to be doubly devastating on the ground." - George W. Bush, August 31, 2005

Are we to be moved by the fact that Bush indicated he was moved? Anyone could see that Katrina was devastating. Swift and decisive action, decision-making is what we expect of a leader, not a staged show of emotion for the nightly news three days after the devastation.

I assure you I noticed the jacket almost immediately and asked myself, does the President usually travel inside the airplane in that stupid jacket? How phoney is that?!

tc -- I'm with you on the hands and arms, it's what gives him that apelike stance. Here, what's with the fists??

Gary -- the jacket, are we supposed to associate this with some kind of working man, a lineman say or an auto mechanic? Or is it military?

Those guys who did the Bush action figure had it right after all -- dress up the little president doll.

He looks like a child that just got in trouble. The jacket actually adds to that effect by looking like a school boy zipper jacket; rather than an adult suit jacket. That he is hunching down to look through the windows just adds to the "am I in trouble?" look he gives the camera.

You would expect an adult, who is in charge and taking responsiblity, to be pacing and leaning to look out the window. You wouldn't expect him to be hunched down in the dark and squished into a chair, like a child.

The Air Force 1 pictures from Sept. 11 are not exactly impressive either, but are at least showing Bush is alive and active,( ), not cowering in fear.

Did anyone else see a quote attributed to Trent Lott after Bush visited his destroyed house and talked about sitting on the porch of Lott's new home after rebuilding? I think Lott said something like, "That was the Presidency, not the President talking."

I think that "framing" of the Presidency vs: the President is exactly what we see here. It is not the President but the "Presidency" that is on view at all times.

Like yesterday, Bush taking "responsibility." HE is not taking responsibility, it is "the Presidency" doing another stand-in for him.

My eyes are continually drawn to his hands -- the fists clenched, almost white-knuckled. Here is a guy who is full of inner turmoil at this moment. He isn't overcome with empathy and emotion -- it is something else. My guess is that it some type of fear and terror -- he has no idea how he can fix this and it is tearing him up. He doesn't know how to be "Presidential" in this crisis.

I'd imagine the airspace was closed during this fly-by photo op. When you have a 747 buzzing N.O. at 1700 feet you'd better get those rescue choppers out of the farkin' way.

One other unique factor in this situation is that he was caught without any of his staff around to manage the situation for him. Cheyney, Rove, Card were all away on vacation. His chief communication person is in Europe getting married, and other staff are there with her. He is caught having to manage this with just a junior aide.

And it is his own doing. This vacation deal is his own way of sticking it to the country full of people who are working overtime to get their jobs done, taking fewer vacation days, and, for people working part-time, no vacation at all.

What kind of place is it where ALL the bosses are allowed to take vacation at the same time? Who is running the country?

His staying on vacation two extra days AFTER the hurricane hit was just a poke in the eye to those who expected him to do something. Like the sullen kid who has to be dragged out in the morning to cut the lawn, he is determined to take his time.

I keep noticing that of all the window shades, only the one at Bush's seat is not fully open. It gives the impression that Bush had just raised it, as though he had kept it closed, blocking out the view, until the time came for photographs to be taken.

He's looked, acted and sounded - throughout - like a frat boy brought before the dean. His "apology" yesterday felt like a scripted mea culpa, and if he thinks about this at all on human terms beyond the obvious political pickle into which it's flung him, it's probably more along the lines expressed by his sainted mother: "They were underprivileged anyway."

I read somewhere that Rove actually invited the reporters in to that part of the plane (from which they are ordinarily excluded) to take the photo and has been roundly criticized for having done so and that in general Repugs are horrified by the photo. Is that wrong, was Rove not there???

"To the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility," Bush told a White House news conference at which he openly questioned U.S. preparedness.

"The President has done the obvious, only after it was clear he could not get away with the inexcusable." -John Kerry

The first pic is my favorite. The intentionally clenched fist as if to say "I'm so angry about what's happened to my people!" The angry father photo-op.

Meanwhile if he were to lift that right hand up, and keep his left hand where it is, it becomes an offensive gesture towards anyone who might criticize him.

The look (picture 2): "Shit this is a big fuck-up. How do I get out of this one?"

The fists: Anger. Not at the devastation but his own predicament. Looking for someone to hit. "Somebody's gonna pay for this fuckup and it isn't gonna be me."

The jacket: The boy preznit in his Big Airplane. The quintessential truth about Bush pere et fils: All suit; no man.

The photos of each of Bush's visits (and flybys) of the area are so staged I have trouble associating any actual action with them. The plane photos seemed completely designed for captioning rather than gathering info. "Bush surveys damage."

I heard that the firemen walking next to Bush on his first on the ground visit were specifically taken away from a preliminary staging area in Atlanta(?). They had actually not done any rescue work at all yet. Their first task in the disaster area was to pose with Bush.

This is the PR vision of crisis management: sanitized images, concerned sound bites, and control of information. The difference this time is that the disparity between the reality on the ground and the image is beyond easy manipulations.

Guess the GOP won't be selling these to raise campaign dough, like they did with the 9/11 flyover pics . . .

Considering the reality now, it is outrageous that seeing the destruction, he could only see the profit in a plan to proportion the recovery to his cronies' corporations, who already reap billions of dollars in Iraq.
There is no transparency on the awarding of money to corporations to clean up LO ... The hyenas are ready to get more dough from the victims' misfortune!

As the Gulf Coast disaster spins out of control

– TheBAG

The Port of New Orleans began unloading its first cargo ship since Hurricane Katrina on Tuesday night, months sooner than was predicted, a sign that disruption to the nation's shipping capacity may be less severe than originally forecast.

– The Washington Post

Are these two talking about the same event?

One might want to keep in mind that, once President Bush has been tagged with sole responsibility (as this website does), he'll naturally pick up sole credit should things turn out better (such as, say, a lower than expected number of deaths).

I take a back seat to no one in my deep disgust at this Administration's ineptitude and venality, but what exactly is he supposed to look like in these photos? Are they really that damning? I think we're wasting a lot of time reading the language of his hands--there's plenty of bad news in his actions that we need to deal with.

OldGuy--after the right wing has already blamed the victims who "chose to stay" how can Bush take credit for people who did not drown?

Wrong, AOG.

Nothing will erase the fact that Dubya chose to remain on vacation for days while the disaster was looming, while the disaster struck, and while thousands suffered in its aftermath.

If the death toll is less than expected, we will thank God, but not the guitar-strumming cowboy.

I take a back seat to no one in my deep disgust at this Administration's ineptitude and venality, but what exactly is he supposed to look like in these photos? Are they really that damning? I think we're wasting a lot of time reading the language of his hands--there's plenty of bad news in his actions that we need to deal with.

You're right. I have yet to see a picture of Dubya in which he doesn't look clueless and out of his depth, but maybe that's just me... or maybe it's because he is singularly unqualified for the position that was thrust upon him.

As bad as Katrina was, the worst disaster to hit the United States in recent years was the coup that put this incompetent, arrogant, and venal man in the White House. More unnecessary death and destruction resulted from that one event than from any other.

I think those clenched fists indicate how close Dubya is to completely, as they say in the psych biz, decompensating. It's not anger or frustration -- it's a tight grasp on the shreds of his self-control.


The three post I have done so far in my Week America Lost New Orleans/ Presidential Retrospective series are all date, and (at least loosely) written as if composed on that particular day. As far as I understand, the Gulf Coast disaster was spinning out of control on Wednesday, August 31, 2005. Sorry if this wasn't clear.

I think that the secret of Bush's ability to build a personality cult is that he has the instincts of a male model. Quite literally, his brand of leadership has been about image and style over substance and reality.

Like all models, he depends on talented professionals to set the shots up (Mt. Rushmore, Mission Accomplished), and keen-eyed editors to select the best shots. The White House has also developed a top-notch wardrobe department that can provide him with unique costumes.

Bush's advance team knows that if they give him the right costume and set up the picture correctly, Bush can give them the perfect steely gaze or optimistic cast. The photo editors of the newspapers will naturally select the most compelling shots.

Here, the photo editors betrayed him. Bush appears to be trying for a combination of heartfelt sympathy and a determination to make things right, and there were probably dozens of discarded photos that would have conveyed exactly that. In the wake of Katrina, though, the Fourth Estate was in no mood to play along, and the photo selected aptly reflects the tenor of the coverage. For the first time in my memory, the mainstream media's preferred image of the President is one in which he seems to be caught off-guard, helpless, and frightened.

Whew, after all of this "expert psycho analysis", when will you guys get off your butts and use your powers to solve all of those unsolved crimes?

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