The myth of George W. Bush was born on the piles at ground zero. As the president stood atop the smoldering rubble, bullhorn in his right hand, left arm draped around the shoulders of a fireman, someone shouted at him.
“We can’t hear you!”
“I can hear you,” Bush bellowed in response. The crowd, covered in debris from the collapse of the World Trade Center, erupted in applause. “And the rest of the world hears you! And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” The cluster of emergency responders began chanting “U.S.A!”
This was the story the Bush administration would tell about itself—that Americans had come together as one in the face of great adversity, and that no one would be left behind. It was the image Bush wanted to define his presidency, in policy and politics, if not so much in practice. And it was the theme he evoked again, in a video released on Saturday, making a rare ex-presidential public statement to call for unity during the current coronavirus pandemic. “Following 9/11, I saw a great nation rise as one to honor the brave, to grieve with the grieving and to embrace unavoidable new duties,” he said in the video. “And I have no doubt, none at all, that this spirit of service and sacrifice is alive and well in America.”
“Empathy and essential kindness are simple, powerful tools of national recovery,” he added. “Even at an appropriate social distance, we can find ways to be present in the lives of others, to ease their anxiety and share their burdens.”
To some segments of a currently stricken nation, this was what they needed to hear. Bush was immediately lauded online for exemplifying the kind of leadership America needs. Observers praised him as thoughtful and, despite his flaws, as being more presidential than President Donald Trump. One current White House journalist went so far as to focus on one particular point of comparison: how Trump refuses to turn to his predecessors for help in a crisis, while Bush sought advice from former presidents in handling Hurricane Katrina.
Even by the unreal standards of the Trump administration and the pandemic disaster, this defied belief and basic history alike. Somehow, the moment where the Bush mythology of shared national purpose fell apart was being evoked as a lesson in presidential leadership.
Where to begin? Aboard Air Force One, maybe, where photographers snapped pictures of the president who had once clambered through the rubble of New York, now gazing out the window at the destruction of New Orleans from a distance as he flew from vacation in Texas back to Washington. Or in Mobile, Alabama, a couple of days later, where he told FEMA director Michael Brown that he was doing a “great” job of managing the response, while thousands of people went without food, water, or medical attention.
As bodies floated through the city’s streets and civilians trudged through floodwaters looking for refuge, Bush seemed indifferent. “Unlike Ronald Reagan, after the Challenger explosion, or Bill Clinton, after the Oklahoma City bombing, Bush had failed to feel the profound implications of the moment as his predecessors had,” historian Douglas Brinkley wrote in Vanity Fair. “He didn’t scramble into action. He didn’t touch the nation’s heartstrings by using epic oratory to inform the disaster. What we got, instead, were … terse speeches void of human pathos.”
Empathy and kindness were not the order of the day. Three Black men were killed by a white man after they walked through his neighborhood while trying to reach an evacuation site. Ethel Freeman was left to rot outside of the New Orleans Convention Center while the Bush administration maintained in several news appearances that they were unaware of the situation. Images of Black survivors begging for help from their rooftops were seared in public memory. Black folks were dragged by journalists for “looting.”
And even as the Trump administration and its supporters fiddle with death tolls and statistical projections, it’s still unknown how many lives the Bush administration’s failures cost. The coronavirus pandemic has certainly killed more people, but in key ways, the errors of government response to Katrina mirror the Trump administration’s blunders regarding COVID-19. In July 2004, the officials involved in the mishandling of the Katrina response participated in a simulation exercise where a fictional Category 3 storm known as Hurricane Pam hit the New Orleans area. While many involved say it did improve the overall response, they noted that the government failed to implement important lessons from the exercise. It took days for federal supplies to make it to those in need and officials were indecisive in their execution of relief efforts.
Bush knew that something like this could happen. The government’s mishandling of Katrina reconfirmed the astounding federal indifference toward Black life and called Bush’s bluff. Though the narrative of unity has always been attractive during times of turmoil, the burden is not equally felt—not during Katrina and not during the coronavirus pandemic.
The 43rd president is not a counterexample to the 45th. All he truly has to offer to the country is a warning not to forget what really happened, and what could happen again.