On September 13, to the astonishment of both the public and political pundits, George W. Bush said he was sorry. More precisely, the President admitted his own culpability for the bureaucratic, economic, and social mayhem that followed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. "To the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right," he said, "I take full responsibility."
Americans have learned to take a Presidential apology seriously when they hear one. In a recent interview, Barbara Walters asked Bush whether he believed the American invasion of Iraq was "worth it" despite inspectors' failure to discover weapons of mass destruction. The President's answer was an unhesitant "absolutely." Since then, and in all the time America has maintained a military presence in Iraq, the President has offered "no regrets" about any of his decisions pertaining to the armed forces' mission there.
This surprising admission of guilt by a president who has until this point staunchly refused to admit any wrongdoing whatsoever deserves an explanation. This is especially true since, historically, it is not at all clear that a presidential mea culpa is something that the American people demand from even their most errant leaders. "I don't think Americans expect apologies, because apologies don't mean much unless there is carried with it an analysis of what went wrong, and an analysis is rarely made," says Sarah Phillips, professor of American history at Columbia University. Karlyn Bowman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, agrees. "The presidency is uniquely a performance office, and elections … are an opportunity for the American public to tell him what he's doing wrong. There is no evidence in the public opinion polls that people expect a public apology from their president," Bowman explains. In reality, she says, "it's primarily a media demand, and a recent one at that."
Recent polls support Bowman's position. 58 percent of those surveyed in a recent CNN/Gallup poll conducted between September 15-18th expressed their disapproval of the President's overall performance, while 61 percent believe that it is he and he alone who "bears full responsibility for what went wrong with the relief effort after the hurricane." "Polls indicate that public opinion of Bush was low before Hurricane Katrina, and it's low now," Bowman observes. "The public judges the performance of an incumbent and they have many opportunities in public opinion polls to say they don't like the way Bush is doing his job. He has a strong disapproval rating right now, and they're rendering a verdict in this way."
Bush's apology was at least partly the result of genuine contrition on his part for the blunders committed by the Administration in the wake of the storm. "He was criticized for reacting late to what happened in Louisiana," explains Brigitte Nacos, professor of political science at Columbia, "and I think he may have recognized that it might have been a fair complaint." That the President apologized for what he perceived to be his own mistakes in New Orleans might in turn help explain his refusal to do so in relation to Iraq. "I don't believe he thinks he made errors in Iraq and Afghanistan," Nacos says. "I think the White House believes they have done the right thing. And I think that to this day, there are still people in the Administration who believe WMD are or were there." Bowman concurs. "He honestly believes that Saddam Hussein posed a real threat, even if there weren't weapons of mass destruction … Why would Bush apologize for something he genuinely doesn't believe was a mistake?"
Perhaps he apologized in this case because Iraq and Katrina presented different political problems. "When it comes to terrorism, it is very difficult not to support the Commander in Chief," Nacos says. "The hurricane is different. It's a domestic situation. There has always been a difference between domestic and foreign policy." After the hurricane hit so close to home it did not take long for the President and his staff to decide that ignoring the situation would further harm his standing with the public.
Nevertheless, as a means of diffusing the pressure the President faced from the press on Katrina, and increasingly on Iraq as well, the apology was a gross strategic error. 24/7 news coverage of the storm, the victims' own vocal outrage and grief, and our visceral sympathy for any victim of tragedy focused constant attention on the bureaucratic errors that took place in the South. "One explanation of why criticism of Bush has been so high is because now people can just turn on the TV and see that people aren't being helped," Nacos observes. This attention is strikingly different from most of the media's coverage of Iraq, as the vast majority of their internal deliberations and decisions have been cloaked in secrecy for legitimate reasons of national security.
But even if the American people are not asking for an apology, neither are they going to forget the bureaucratic and administrative failures of the last several weeks. "The crisis is not caused by an enemy," argues Nacos, "and it is conceivable to me that the criticism is particularly strong now because people think that in the years since 9/11, he has gotten away with a lot of stuff on which he was never called."
Whether or not Bush's apology helped him does not clarify the issue. The public's reaction to the President's admission of culpability does not necessarily reveal the motivations underlying the apology itself. More specifically, they lie in the history of prior presidential apologies, or lack thereof, made by such men as Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and Bush himself.
After famously stating that he did not have relations with “that woman," Clinton suddenly found himself impeached and at risk of being evicted from office. Only at that point did Clinton give his decidedly perfunctory admission of guilt, but it did the trick. "Clinton's apology occurred within a completely different context,” explains Nacos, “but during his troubles, Clinton's approval ratings actually went up, and that probably had to do with it being a private matter," Nacos explains. It was by no means a foregone conclusion that Clinton's apology would help him regain the public's approval. In fact, many pundits thought he was concerned only with saving his own skin and that this image would further damage his standing with voters. Yet the opposite happened: it gave him bump in the polls and helped stave off completion of the impeachment process.
The longer the delay between event and apology, the less effective the apology will be. The effectiveness of both Bush's Katrina statement and Clinton's Monicagate apology suffered in part by being too little, too late. "If one looks at Clinton and Bush, you see the real problem with Bill Clinton was that an apology wasn't offered immediately," explains Nacos. Both men seemed to genuinely doubt that their own actions were inappropriate or at least believe that they were entirely irrelevant to the public as a whole. And both appeared genuinely surprised to find that their mistakes, lying to Congress or failing to respond to a natural disaster, were not peccadilloes that the American public would be willing to accept. "[Bush] didn't consider that this is something that transcends the other political fights we've had domestically," remarks Phillips. "The delay was significant, very significant. He's just so used to not accepting responsibility that it very quickly became clear that this was different than Iraq."
But late is better than never. After reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein revealed the secrets of Watergate, Richard Nixon was exposed as a criminal and a liar in front of the American people. Yet he never apologized. "Watergate is in a league of its own. In substance, it went to the heart of America - it was criminal behavior. Clinton committed a crime in lying to Congress, but his transgression was private. What he said afterward was terrible, but it wasn't as bad as doing a crime within the context of political activities and in the capacity of the presidency," Nacos argues. Nixon's presidency was a lost cause from the moment the Washington Post printed its first exposés of his insidious activities.
Nixon could never regain the public's trust once the Watergate scandal broke, rendering any apology politically futile. In contrast, Clinton's presidency hung in the balance when he finally admitted his indiscretions. As these examples illustrate, presidential apologies are not an outlet through which guilty national leaders can achieve some kind of emotional catharsis. Rather, they seem to be a means of endearing oneself to a critical American public.
But Bush's situation is different. Whereas in the instances of Iraq, Watergate, or Monicagate, culpability could be assigned to the mortals, Bush could never have prevented a hurricane from hitting the coast. In historical cases, admitting guilt was tantamount to admitting that the entire unfortunate incident might have been avoided in the first place. "To conceive Hurricane Katrina as a natural disaster is to write it off as an act of God-and to apologize for it is to appear humble," observes Phillips. However, she points out here, "Katrina became a man-made disaster. Social and environmental forces converged to put certain (mostly poor and black) people in harm's way, [but Bush failed] to provide kinds of planning and quick response that could have made a difference."
There is a clear difference between the degrees of responsibility that can be assigned for natural and man-made disasters. "As much as many people feel aligned against the Iraq War, it remains a political debate," Phillips observes. "You can stand behind the contingent of people who believe this was the proper response to 9/11. [The hurricane] isn't a real debate. There's no debate in this country about whether our government has a responsibility to protect and rescue citizens from natural disasters. It's just an entitlement." Hurricane Katrina only became a man-made catastrophe because of the Administration's mismanagement.
If Bush's entire presidency has been predicated on the idea that there is an impending and inevitable threat to our national security, how is the American public supposed to respond when Bush fails to react properly in the first disaster since 9/11, and what do Bush's blatant errors in administrative responsibility in the aftermath of the storm portend for the future? "I would hope that the hurricane would cause those people who support the president to rethink the basis of their support, which is that he is going to protect us from any threat, that he was the stronger candidate, the one who was going to more forcefully respond to 9/11," says Phillips.
While the American public has either been unaware or unwilling to object to an international situation that questioned its sense of national unity and patriotism, that same hesitation is clearly absent in the case of Hurricane Katrina. Bush has frequently demonstrated resilience in the face of possible political troubles. "This administration has been devilishly ingenious in slipping out of blame," Phillips observes. "It seems like much of the American people are so wedded to the idea that the government is the problem, and that we needed to respond with force to 9/11, that they are willing to follow someone who has clearly made mistakes."
So a poor reception for Bush's response to Katrina does not mean that political change is at hand. "This is not going to fundamentally change the balance of liberalism and conservatism in this country," argues Phillips. "Katrina might have an effect in solidifying opinion that the government should respond to events that seem like they were out of anyone's control, but the balance of power in the country isn't going to change."
Ideally, the hurricane will lead the nation to consider this Administration's failures within a larger context than that of its inaction in the wake of the storm. Not only did Katrina break through the insufficient levee system upon which New Orleans depended, it also widened the cracks in the foundation of the nation and its government. Bush undoubtedly feels as all Americans do when they witness the heartbreaking tragedy on the Gulf Coast. But that fact should not prevent the country from judging him for the intensely political culture of his White House and the tragedy that culture has brought upon the country. An apology may facilitate a resolution, but it does not excuse the crime.