Six Days Before the Presidential Proclamation: Why it Matters

Do you think that George W. Bush reacted slowly to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina? Are you tired of administration apologists talking about “pointing fingers” and “blame-gaming?”

Forget the arguments about how many buses would be needed to evacuate the poor. Forget whether local governments needed to ask for federal help or whether gunmen firing at helicopters delayed relief operations or whether incompetents ran FEMA and DHS. Forget the names Nagin, Blanco, Brown, and Chertoff.

There’s something that only George W. Bush could do. It’s something that only he could make the decision to do. It didn’t require a request from anyone. He didn’t need to go anywhere special to do it. And all he needed to do was sign his name. It’s called a presidential proclamation honoring the death of a person (or persons) by ordering federal installations to fly flags at half-staff.

On September 4, Bush issued a presidential proclamation ordering flags to be flown at half-staff in remembrance of the victims of Hurricane Katrina. That’s six days after the hurricane struck. That same day, he signed a half-staff proclamation in honor of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who had died just the day before.

I went through the the White House’s list of presidential proclamations and compiled a table of events, dates, and how many days elapsed between the event and the proclamation.

I found eleven cases where Bush ordered the flag to be flown at half-staff. Seven of the proclamations were issued within a day of the event, as in the cases of 9/11, the Columbia disaster, and the deaths of Bob Hope, Ronald Reagan, and Pope John Paul II.

It took two days to honor former Supreme Court Justice Byron White. The proclamation for Strom Thurmond took four. A proclamation was issued for the victims of the Asian tsunami in either six or seven days, depending on how you account for the international date line.

But it took nearly a week for Bush to make even this simple gesture of respect for victims of Katrina. Not just the poor and the black in New Orleans, but for all victims in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Sure, he’d visited the disaster area by the time the proclamation was issued, but its signing provided no opportunity for a photo, no television coverage, no praise for a “Good boy, George.” All it would have been was an official acknowledgment of the human tragedy and suffering.

There was no need to write any fancy verbiage, the proclamations are just a couple of boilerplate paragraphs. All Bush had to do was tell a staffer to fill in the blanks and scrawl his signature on the page. He didn’t even need to leave his busy schedule of eating cake with John McCain in Arizona or buffing his image as a war president in San Diego, it would have been a matter of seconds on his part. But he and his staff didn’t get around to it until they realized they’d look pretty stupid issuing a proclamation for Rehnquist when they hadn’t paid the same respect to the thousands of victims of Katrina.

Bush’s response on this solitary point is an indicator of just how — to purloin Calvin Trillin’s characterization of Ronald Reagan — disengaged he is.

September 8, 2005 is the 1,458th day since September 11, 2001. The invasion of Iraq took place 904 days ago. The American Civil War — in which one half of this country defeated the forces of and occupied the other — lasted 1,458 days, from Ft. Sumter to Appomattox. Aren’t you glad Bush wasn’t in charge of that? Today is also the 70th anniversary of the assassination of populist Louisiana Senator Huey P. Long.