Managing Perceptions of Presidential Ignorance

“I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees,” President Bush told ABC’s Diane Sawyer Sept. 1. Possibly he now regrets having made that statement reflecting as it does such abject ignorance. But I don’t know. Perhaps no one in his inner circle has informed him that the press is awash with reports that lots of people anticipated massive flooding in New Orleans in the wake of a major hurricane, and that in consequence, his comment has drawn criticism.

Of course any advisor would have to speak deferentially. He or she can’t say, “Sir, in October 2001, Mark Fischetti, writing in Scientific American, in an article entitled ‘Drowning New Orleans,’ declared that a ‘major hurricane could swamp New Orleans under 20 feet of water, killing thousands. Human activities along the Mississippi River have dramatically increased the risk, and now only massive reengineering of southeastern Louisiana can save the city.’ And sir, the same year FEMA claimed that the flooding of New Orleans due to a hurricane was one of the three top possible disasters facing the U.S.

“Then in a series in the New Orleans newspaper Times-Picayune in June 2002, John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein wrote that ‘eventually a major hurricane will hit New Orleans head on, instead of being just a close call. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again Even storms weaker than Category 3 could break through the levees.’ That September NPR did a documentary in which scientists claimed a Category Five Hurricane will put New Orleans under 20 feet of water and kill tens of thousands.

“In 2004 CNN ran an ad featuring Saturday Night Live’s “Mr. Bill” that urged protection of Louisiana’s wetlands, and stated ‘since New Orleans is below sea level, if a hurricane hits us directly, it could push the water over the levees and fill it to the top.’ In June the Times-Picayune complained about cuts in the budget for work on the east bank hurricane levees and quoted an Army Corps of Engineers’ senior project manager as saying, ‘When levees are below grade, as ours are in many spots right now, they’re more vulnerable to waves pouring over them and degrading them.’

“Then, Mr. President, in the July 2004 “Hurricane Pam” exercise, 270 experts spent a week simulating the impact of a major hurricane and predicted that flood waters would overcome the levees and cover most of the city, killing tens of thousands. And in September after Hurricane Ivan, the Natural Hazards Center declared that if it had directly hit New Orleans it would have ’caused the levees between the lake and city to overtop and fill the city ‘bowl’ with water.’ In October 2004 National Geographic predicted that an August hurricane would cause the waters of Lake Pontchartrain to spill over the berm holding back the lack, submerging 80% of the city and killing thousands. So actually, sir, your comment to Sawyer looks pretty uninformed.”

No, Karl Rove’s not going to say that. But he could say, “We have to recognize that this could become a political problem. Some are saying that your administration should have been aware that levees needed work to prevent a catastrophe, but instead was preoccupied with the war in Iraq (which is increasingly unpopular) and so you just didn’t pay attention. They’re saying we diverted money for levees to Homeland Security and Iraq, and even suggesting that we didn’t care about New Orleans because of all the poor black people there. So when you said, ‘Nobody anticipated the breach of the levies’ the liberals were all acting like you personally should have known about various dire predictions by scientists, journalists and political officials. Like that’s your job!”

“Yeah, like I’m some sort of levee specialist!”

“Fortunately the public doesn’t seem to buy that. Only 13% of persons polled blame you for the breach of the levees. 25% blame state or local officials, and 38% say no one’s to blame. And a lot of people see the whole thing as an act of God. These are mostly people in our political base. Most people aren’t gonna fault you for being surprised about what happened. Our problem is what they’re saying about your response to the disaster. 42% call it ‘bad’ or ‘terrible,’ and just 35% call it ‘good’ or ‘great.’ We need to do some perception management

“Your advice, Turd Blossom?”

“Well, when the liberals were making a big deal about us not finding weapons of destruction in Iraq, we honestly acknowledged ‘intelligence failures.'”


“And blamed the CIA for exaggerating the threat.”


“And then you restructured the intelligence community, to make it better and more useful. You could do the same with FEMA.”

“You mean, blame Brownie?”

“Well, you’ve already said he’s doing ‘a heck of a job,’ and just like you didn’t blame Tenet you needn’t blame Michael Brown. Maybe let him go if he seems a real liability. Anyway while you personally lead the investigation into what went wrong in New Orleans—”

“And what went right—”

“—you can shake up FEMA so that it gets a more positive image among the general public.”

“So you think this’ll blow over?”

“I think so. And it’s a big opportunity to show compassion to black people, work with black churches, encourage faith-based charities, and promote respect for our men and women in uniform both abroad and here at home. Keep to the moral high ground; blame critics for playing the ‘blame game,’ graciously take responsibility for government failures, noting that you’re a sinner and like everybody has failings but that you always pray to God for guidance. Meanwhile we’ll quietly keep raising questions about Blanco and Nagin’s response to the situation”

“I’m just worrying about when they drain the citywhat they’re gonna find”

“Well, frankly, New Orleans had a huge criminal element and a lot of people aren’t exactly going to mourn the loss of those people. When you said on September 1 there’d be ‘zero tolerance’ for looters, you helped people see the disaster as not just a natural one but one involving bad guys versus good guys. And those bodies, you know, a lot of ’em aren’t good people. Some people might think God’s punishing them, and we can work with that We need to keep the focus on the heroes bringing the city back, even though that’s gonna take a long time.”

“Yeah but we gotta get those refineries and pipelines back on line. I never expected this.”

“You couldn’t have, sir.”

“or expected my approval rate to drop to 38%, Turd Blossom. Not that I’m blaming you.”

“I don’t think anybody anticipated that, Mr. President.”

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at:







We published an article entitled “A Saudiless Arabia” by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the “Article”), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, (the “Website”).

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August 17, 2005


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: