"That levee of lies couldn't hold back the truth."
Sonny Landreth, from "Blue Tarp Blues"
As the extent of Hurricane Katrina became apparent, Karl Rove orchestrated a campaign to deflect attention from the meager response of the Bush Administration. In this excerpt from his book Machiavelli's Shadow: The Rise & Fall Of Karl Rove, Paul Alexander details how Rove sought to politicize the disaster by blaming it on Louisiana Democratic governor Kathleen Blanco. Alexander breaks down these events on a riveting day-by-day basis, beginning with Katrina making landfall Monday, August 29:
- That morning, FEMA Director Michael Brown assures Blanco that his agency is prepared to provided everything necessary.
- Bush, vacationing in Crawford (Texas), makes a speech in Arizona about the importance of staying the course in Iraq.
Tuesday, August 30
- Still unaware of the extent of the unfolding catastrophe, Bush gives a similar speech in Coronado (California) on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II.
- Meanwhile, the promised Federal assistance to New Orleans does not materialize. The sole official response comes from the Lousiana State Police and the Louisiana National Guard.
- By now aware of the Administration's tardy and inadequate response, Karl Rove acts -- by devising a strategy to praise Republicans and blame Democrats. The strategy hinges on spreading false rumors (for example, that Blanco had not declared a state of emergency when in fact she had three days before Katrina struck) and exploiting a schism between Blanco and New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin (who were political enemies).
Wednesday, August 31
- Blanco calls Bush to request federal assistance. He agrees, but sends only a general and a few staff members to act "in an advisory capacity."
Thursday, September 1
- New Orleans remains under water. No federal help has arrived.
- Members of the national media assail Blanco's staff, questioning their handling of the disaster. Eventually, she tells the staff to ignore them and focus on the job at hand.
- The White House informs Blanco that, in exchange for help, she must federalize the Louisiana National Guard and law enforcement agencies, effectively accepting blame for the unfolding catastrophe.
Friday, September 2
- Bush visits Mobile (Alabama), where he tells Michael Brown, "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job." Brown remains unaware that 25,000 New Orleansians have taken refuge at the Superdome.
- In Missippi, Bush praises Republican governor Haley Barbour's handling of Katrina. He requires neither Barbour nor Alabama Republican governor Bob Riley to federalize their National Guards as a precondition of federal assistance.
- Bush meets with Blanco and again pressures her to federalize the Louisiana National Guard. As this is her one bargaining chip in what has become a negotiating process, Blanco refuses. Instead, she personally gives Bush a 2-page letter detailing the state's needs. (Later, when none of the needs had been addressed, Blanco released the letter to the press. A "frantic" Bush aid called Blanco, who realized that Bush had lost the letter.)
- Bush, Blanco, Nagin, and Louisiana senators Mary Landrieu (D) David Vitter (R) tour the 17th Street Canal to watch vigorous recovery efforts being conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Saturday, September 3
- Bush announces the deployment of federal troops to New Orleans.
- The Louisiana National Guard completes the evacuation of the Superdome and the Convention Center.
- Late in the day, Landrieu escorts television commentator George Stephanopoulos by helicopter to the 17th Street Canal to show him that some progress is being made. All that remains of the previous day's activity is a single crane. "I could not believe that the president of the United States...had come down to the city of New Orleans and basically put up a stage prop...They put the props up and the minute we were gone they took them down. All the dump trucks were gone. All the Coast Guard people were gone...At that moment, I knew what was going on and I've been a changed woman ever since."
Rove's machinations failed. Despite the massive spinning, the American public perceived Bush as out of touch and inept, clearing brush in Crawford while New Orleans screamed in agony. The truth had swept over the Administration's levee of lies.
Sonny Landreth, "Blue Tarp Blues"