Searching for #Katrina10 at the Bush 43 Presidential Library
On the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum’s special exhibit was all about… wait for it… baseball!
Looking back, it was ambitious (or naïve) of me to think the museum would commemorate Hurricane Katrina’s tenth anniversary. After all, history is still working out who’s to blame for the government’s bungled response to the most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history. Bush is on the shortlist. “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” is sure to follow him to the grave. And presidential libraries aren’t keen on painting warts and all.
Despite my better judgment, I made a pilgrimage to Bush the Younger’s shrine in Dallas during the week leading up to Hurricane Katrina’s anniversary. The jaded policy wonk inside me knew it was asinine to think a presidential library would highlight the low-point of its namesake’s administration, but Nixon’s museum recently made strides toward such realism. In quiet desperation, I hoped Bush 43 would prove me wrong. Deep down, I just wanted George W. Bush’s self-proclaimed compassionate conservativism to melt my bitter heart. Surely, I thought to myself, the deeply religious president had ensured his presidential center’s ten-million-dollar endowment had spared a few pennies to do something special for the 1,833 people killed by Katrina. Now I understand why idealism is often a pejorative.
I don’t recall much about the museum, except that I paid sixteen dollars to enter and left feeling assaulted. After years of only reading about the former president and seeing his cute cat paintings, I had forgotten how his voice makes my chest tighten and heart race. You hear his voice a lot in the museum. It’s almost as if someone thinks George W. Bush is a great orator. Or maybe the curator has a sense of humor.
The museum includes a moving September 11 tribute, from which you emerge teary eyed to learn how the United States defended democracy by waging the Global War on Terrorism. I couldn’t find any information on Curveball, the Iraqi informant upon whose lies Bush launched a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people including 4,486 U.S. soldiers. Neither could I find the famous “Mission Accomplished” photograph. But I was walking quickly and could have missed them. After all, I was there looking for Hurricane Katrina. Where is she?
After stopping to check out a massive taxidermic lion, a gift from President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, I meandered along, eyes peeled for a memorial to the thousands of lives lost in the 2005 hurricane. I came across a model schoolhouse with a couple of walls dedicated to No Child Left Behind, a theater where you can hear all about the Bush ranch in Crawford (no explanation of why there was so much brush clearing to do) and the requisite mock Oval Office. I looped around and found myself back at the lion. Surely I missed something. Where is Katrina?
Luckily a couple of docents were standing nearby. They didn’t look busy, so I approached them to inquire. On my way over, I heard the docents talking about “Muslims,” “ISIS,” and “Obama.” The serious looks on their faces warned against bothering them. I decided to find Katrina myself. She has to be nearby.
My temples were throbbing from voluntarily subjecting myself to reliving The Aughts— that awfully gloomy decade that ushered in the twenty-first century. I thought about escaping through an emergency exit, but I resolved to push through. After all, I hadn’t made it to the special exhibit — “Baseball: America’s Presidents, America’s Pastime.” On the way into the museum, security had told me the baseball exhibit’s short film was powerful and moving. First, I have to find Katrina.
Finally, just as I was about to leave the museum’s main exhibit, I saw her. Had I blinked, I’d have missed the Hurricane Katrina display completely. It was all the size of a large window. Maybe a pair of French doors.
Katrina was there at the very end (or very beginning, depending on which door you enter) of the museum’s main exhibit in a section titled “Crisis Management.” Irony? According to the introductory placard, “In 2005, the nation faced one of the most devastating hurricanes in U.S. history. In 2008, the nation faced the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. President Bush met each crisis by working to restore order and providing practical plans for recovery.”
You can’t make this stuff up. Historians consider Hurricane Katrina a low point of George W. Bush’s administration. Even the former president himself does not consider his response to the disaster efficient crisis management. In Decision Points, his 2010 memoir, Bush wrote, “I should have recognized the deficiencies sooner and intervened faster . . . . The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions; it was that I took too long to decide.”
I struggled hard to keep from shouting “WHO WROTE THIS PLACARD?” Clearly it was not President Bush himself.
The storm that had wiped away my friends’ homes, devastated my state and killed thousands of people did not even get its own exhibit space at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. For the disaster’s tenth anniversary, the National-Archives-administered facility did nothing. Once again, someone had bungled the response to Hurricane Katrina.
Depressed because I was proven right about presidential museums’ obsession with revisionist history, I went across the hall to the baseball exhibit. The movie was mostly about how Bush’s opening pitch for the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium was an invigorating symbol of recovery and national pride. I guess if New Orleans had a Major League Baseball team, Bush could have thrown the first pitch in September 2005. The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum wouldn’t have forgotten Hurricane Katrina’s tenth anniversary. And all would be well.
Cross-posted from The Huffington Post
Image (of Bush) courtesy of DonkeyHotey, via Flickr.