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Monday, September 5, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bush shifting blame, senator says

The Washington Post

Louisiana officials pushed back hard against the White House yesterday, saying President Bush offered a tentative and insufficient response to the obliteration of New Orleans and then tried to shift the blame to the state and local governments.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., accused Bush of failing to pay for efforts to fortify the levee protecting New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit and of failing to send troops, supplies and other assistance quickly enough in Katrina's aftermath.

"Would the president please stop taking photo-ops and please come and see what I'm trying to show him," Landrieu said on ABC's "This Week." She threatened to "punch" Bush or anyone else who criticizes the response of local officials, one day after administration officials blamed state and local authorities for missteps in relief and rescue efforts.

In public statements and more bluntly behind the scenes, Bush administration officials have questioned local efforts to rescue thousands of people who were stranded for days without food, water and shelter, resulting in the death of an unknown number of people. The Bush administration says the death tolls will reach the thousands by the time New Orleans is drained.

"The blame game"

"All that is still occurring, and people are now reducing it to politics and shifting it to the blame game. It's sad that human tragedy is being reduced to politics," said Denise Bottcher, spokeswoman for Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat.

Bush is trying to undo what many Republicans described as considerable damage to the White House inflicted by his crisis management.

"Almost every Republican I have spoken with is disappointed" in Bush's performance, said William Kristol, a conservative columnist with close White House ties. "He is a strong president ... but he has never really focused on the importance of good execution. I think that is true in many parts of his presidency."

As president, Bush typically has been loath to admit mistakes, and this situation is no different. A senior White House aide said there was no reason for Bush to return to Washington to deal with the disaster before Wednesday, though he was told of the gravity of the situation in briefings late into the night last Monday. Bush cut short his working vacation in Crawford, Texas, but still spent Tuesday night at the ranch.

The aide said Bush wanted to allow his Cabinet and staff time to get back to Washington and in place to brief him. Democrats said Bush would have been better positioned to demand a speedier response if he had been in Washington, or at least had offered Americans a symbolic show of his involvement by cutting short his time away from the White House.

Aides on vacation

One reason for the slow White House response, said a Republican who has been in contact with several officials, is that so many high-level officials and aides were on vacation.

Vice President Dick Cheney, for instance, was in Wyoming and did not return until Thursday. Nicole Devenish, the president's top communications adviser, is getting married in Greece with a number of midlevel aides in attendance.

Bush's first speech to the nation on the disaster has been widely criticized as unemotional and too bureaucratic in tone. In subsequent appearances, Bush seemed at times tentative and distracted — and not always sure of the message he wanted to leave.

On Friday, he said he was "looking forward to my trip" to see the storm wreckage, only to say "I am not looking forward to this trip" when he landed.

The senior aide said Bush wanted to accomplish one major goal with those initial speeches: emphasize "the enormity of the problem" and the government's plan to respond accordingly. Critics said he failed to reassure a distraught nation.

Late last week, Bush said he was unhappy with the overall response, but the aide made it clear he was most upset with the local plan, not his administration's efforts. Bush lost patience with local officials when he learned that thousands of people had been sent to the New Orleans convention center for relief only to learn there was no assistance for victims there, the aide said, calling this the "tipping point."

Bush infuriated Blanco and other local officials when he sought late Friday to federalize the relief effort and seize control of National Guard and other operations. The governor refused, and tensions between the federal and local officials worsened.

"We're still fighting over authority," New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said over the weekend. "A bunch of people are the boss. The state and the federal government are doing a two-step dance."

Landrieu, echoing the concerns of others, said "it's mind-boggling to everyone in Louisiana including myself why the president did not send forces earlier."

Blanco commands the vast majority of the National Guard troops and should be questioned about why she did not move more quickly, the senior aide responded.

President to return to region

The White House is moving on several fronts to repair Bush's image and streamline its response. The president is scheduled to return to Louisiana and Mississippi today.

With a number of African Americans accusing Bush of racial insensitivity, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flew to the region to respond.

"Nobody, especially the president, would have left people unattended on the basis of race," she said yesterday as she toured parts of her native Alabama. Later, during a service at the Pilgrim Rest AME Zion church outside Mobile, Rice nodded in agreement as the Rev. Malone Smith Jr. advised the congregation, "Wait for the Lord."

Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and other African-American leaders of the NAACP and Urban League were invited to the White House for a two-hour meeting Saturday in which top administration officials briefed participants on the hurricane response.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also was sent to the region yesterday, and the senior aide said Bush anticipates the greater military presence will improve communications.

Some Republicans close to the White House say Michael Brown, the Federal Emergency Management Agency director, is taking the brunt of the blame being cast in internal administration conversations, though Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and others defended his performance yesterday.

Post staff writer Spencer Hsu

contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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