Where is our President?

As I watch the unfolding of the horror of Katrina’s aftermath, the thought keeps growing, “Where is our country?”

I don’t mean this in any abstract philosophical sense; I mean it quite practically: Where are our leaders who are so badly needed at this moment?

It is no secret that I don’t like this administration — and I make no apologies for this to the readers who cover their literary ears when I begin to speak about politics — because I don’t like any entity where ideology is stronger than compassion. And that has proven to be the Achilles heel of this group of men and women in office.

But another element is showing itself with Katrina — these are people driven by fear. They are strongest and most decisive when they have a real or perceived enemy. When the moral complexity of the world confronts them, or when something takes place that is morally neutral but dark in nature, such as a natural disaster, they don’t know how to lead, because they won’t put themselves or their ideology in harm’s way out of a belief in our common human responsibility as stewards for all our brothers and sisters.

Forget politics for a minute. Consider moral character instead. After 9-11, when no one knew what was coming next, mayor Giuliani walked out into the streets of New York and became a rallying point for his people. Mr. Bush went into a bunker. He issued statements in which he looked scared and confused, which was exactly what we did not need from a leader, because we, as those charged to follow him, were already scared and confused. Morally, he was missing in action until he could find an enemy to attack.

Once again, with Katrina, this character flaw is showing itself. He may be a very nice man personally, but he does not have the moral character of a true leader for a situation of confused crisis. People are literally dying, and he is missing in action.

The government may be working feverishly to do all it can logistically, but it is once again making its decision out of fear. “We don’t want to put our people in harm’s way,” they are saying regarding rescue and relief efforts.

We have no problem putting our young men and women in harm’s way in Iraq, but we will concern ourselves with this issue in our own country. That there are criminals and headcases and monsters roaming those streets with guns certainly should not be a deterrent. If the rules of engagement for the military in our own country are different from those in foreign countries, the government should say so. I’m afraid the hard truth is this: we do not have the military to go in there because too many of the national guard — consider the name: “NATIONAL GUARD” — are engaged in international conflicts rather than available to guard our nation, which is what they should be doing in this time of desperation.

If Mr. Bush were Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Guiliani, Mr. Mandela, Mr. Churchill, or even, I would venture, Mr. Reagan or Mr. Clinton, he would be down in New Orleans, airlifted in, serving as one of his father’s famous Points of Light for people who are living in some of the greatest darkness our nation has ever seen. He would be standing in the Superdome or at the New Orleans Convention Center, surrounded by such security as was needed to ensure his safety in a dangerous and desperate situation, telling the people that America is there for them and that help is on the way.

But he is once again missing in action. There is no enemy toward which to point. There is no way to galvanize a religious zealotry against a storm. Instead, what is needed is a courage driven by an outpouring of compassion. But he does not have that.

He should be telling his people, “We’re going in there with all the food and water and clothing and help and hope that we can muster.” Because it is hope that is needed as much as anything right now.

People will wait for help if they are given hope. But when leadership runs to the bunker rather than the front lines, confusion reigns, and when confusion reigns, dark times become darker.

Sometimes we lose our moorings when we become too concerned about concepts such as “infrastructure” and “logistics.” Those are for the people behind the scenes. This disaster is not about having an advance party setting up clean venues of maximum safety and efficacy. This is about wading into the waters and saving people.

I know this, because this is what my father did for the Red Cross. He would already have been in New Orleans if he were still alive and active. I grew up around disasters, and I saw the response.

There are people who, when disaster strikes — fires, auto accidents, floods, even personal injuries to a family member in a home — react without thinking and move quickly to provide aid. Then there are those who are frozen, overcome by the momentary enormity of something that seconds ago was unthinkable and unknowable. It is, to some extent, an aspect of character, and some people have it, other people don’t.

Mr. Bush does not. He may have other aspects of character that allow him to be a good leader in other situations. But in moments of crisis, he is, I am sorry to say, a coward. or, at least, a person paralyzed by confusion.

The drowning are on his hands; the dying are on his hands; all the hopelessness and fear is on his hands. That is what leadership is about. All he needs to do is be there. But, unfortunately, this is not a ship in the middle of the ocean where he can have a stage managed arrival to talk to a tidy group of like minded thinkers. This is the great, sprawling, contradictory country that he said he wanted to lead. And it is crying for his leadership.

Where is our president?

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