Slate’s John Dickerson is alarmed by Bush’s Katrina catalepsy

UPDATE: While I appreciate John’s attention, I would like to note that there is more to the site than the two items linked in his column.

As he weighed in yesterday on the now-infamous video of Silent George Bush attending a pre-Katrina video conference, John Dickerson unleashed a burst of inadvertent clarity that perfectly encapsulates what’s wrong with Bush, the administration and the reporters who cover both.

Dickerson, the former Time Magazine Washington correspondent who now holds down the Ruminant desk at Slate, is shocked and alarmed by the president’s lack of engagement with the briefing from National Hurricane Center officials and then-FEMA chief Michael Brown (who is, terrifyingly, beginning to look like the most competent administration official involved in the response to Katrina). “I don’t know what question the president should have asked,” Dickerson plaintively writes toward the end of his column, “but shouldn’t he have asked something?”

Hmmm, yes; probably so. “What in the hell am I doing here” would be a good place to start. But that little cri de coeur pales next to something Dickerson wrote earlier in the piece.

We see the president all the time in public settings, giving speeches, shaking hands, looking concerned. But this footage is fascinating because it is the first video I can recall of the president at work in private. It’s our chance to see how the image of the president painted by his allies compares with the actual man. And the result is somewhat alarming. Based on what I’d been told by White House aides over the years, I expected to see the president asking piercing questions that punctured the fog of the moment and inspired bold action. Bush’s question-asking talents are a central tenet of the president’s hagiography. He may not be much for details, say aides, but he can zero in on a weak spot in a briefing and ask out-of-the-box questions. I have been repeatedly told over the years that he once interrupted a briefing on national defense to pose a 30,000-foot stumper: What is the function of the Department of Defense?

I don’t know what’s most distressing about those 163 words: that Dickerson believed what Bush allies told him about the president, that the president would interrupt a defense briefing to ask what the Pentagon is for, that the best and brightest of the 21st century were stumped by the question, that Bush aides thought the anecdote was so flattering to Bush that they told it repeatedly or that a veteran reporter can reference “the view from 30,000 feet” without the slightest hint of embarrassment or irony.

It seems wholly unlikely that anyone who actually witnessed the administration’s response to Katrina would have any expectation at all of seeing “the president asking piercing questions that punctured the fog of the moment and inspired bold action.” I mean, we saw what happened, and the boldest action taken by the administration came when Michael Chertoff was inspired to blame everything on Kathleen Blanco.

It’s tempting to think, or hope, that Dickerson is writing tongue in cheek, but he makes clear a bit later that no, he really did buy the bridge.

Perhaps the Katrina briefing was an aberration. But I worry that it isn’t. Those in the room with him during other briefings also say he didn’t ask very sharp questions then, either. Former anti-terrorism official Richard Clarke and Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill both wrote about Bush’s lack of curiosity. L. Paul Bremer’s account of his 14 months in Iraq as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority inadvertently paints a similar picture. In briefings, Bush offered a pep talk—”pace yourself, Jerry”—and questions about tangential issues like whether the new Iraqi leaders would thank the Americans for their sacrifice.

So. Okay. What we have here is an experienced Washington hand who has presumably been conscious during at least some of the past five years, and is only now — and only because he saw the frickin’ video — beginning to worry that Bush may not be quite as competent as those responsible for covering his ass say he is. Didn’t it ever occur to Dickerson that executives who consistently ask good questions eventually get good answers that lead to at least an occasional good outcome? Have there been any good outcomes?

That was a rhetorical question. I don’t expect a good outcome. Dickerson, though, against all odds, against all reason, still has hope:

Wednesday night, [Bush] responded to ABC’s Elizabeth Vargas’ questions about the slow federal response to Katrina by pointing out that the administration had learned the lessons of its failures. But learning lessons depends on asking questions—the right ones and a lot of them. Let’s hope one of the questions the president asked after the catastrophe was whether he had asked the right questions before it.

We’re not dealing with stupidity here; you can’t be that stupid and spit out that many at least superficially coherent sentences at one sitting. Maybe it’s just stress. Maybe it’s a spatial orientation problem that causes Dickerson to confuse “out of the box” and “off the wall.” Whatever the genesis, it also led him to join many of his colleagues in overlooking what some people would describe as a more critical aspect of the video: it proves Bush was lying when he said, days after Katrina hit, that no one anticipated the levees would fail.

Or maybe that lapse arises from a different problem. I don’t know. Reading his stuff is like crawling through a tunnel filled with disturbing, wriggly things. You should thank me for my sacrifice.

UPDATE: I’ve come to think this is an eleoquent but inaccurate take on Dickerson’s column.

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56 thoughts on “Slate’s John Dickerson is alarmed by Bush’s Katrina catalepsy”

  1. And how did that fairy tale go? The tailors, like John, had convinced the king and the public of his most beautiful finery and then while he was parading in public someone shouted “the king has no cloths”. Well a closer look will reveal that he is missing even more. Welcome to reality John, the fairy tale is over. Time now for the horror story.

  2. I was wondering about your link for hurricane relief. All it shows are links to the Red Cross and other national organizations. For good or for ill, most of these organizations (Red Cross in particular I am sure about) are not major players in recovery at this time. Perhaps, your purpose is to drive donations for the damage of future hurricanes? Putting more local links ( among them) that are actually helping will be more effective. Thanks!

  3. Can anybody explain to me how Dickerson got the job on SLATE. What does Kinsey think about him?

  4. Ewan, Dickerson was a White House and general political correspondent for Time. He has a reputation for developing good sources and getting them to speak candidly. He’s actually not a dense guy, and I treated him unfairly in this post. I do still think he’s trapped in conventionality and the fabled inside-the-beltway mentality. I have no idea what Kinsley thinks of him.

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