Sept. 7 (Bloomberg) — Call it the duel of the disasters.
Next week, the country will mark the sixth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center. This week, Americans were recalling another tragedy: Hurricane Katrina. A foreigner might look at the U.S. and suppose that Americans, commemorating 2001 and 2005, would come together in one mass moment of September mourning.
He would be wrong. The two disasters may sit together on the calendar, but they don't sit comfortably together in the national mind.
Sept. 11 has come to be viewed as a Red State disaster, a signal moment in the Republican narrative. Blue Staters, by contrast, have claimed Katrina for their own almost from the moment the storm gathered strength over the Bahamas. The divide holds even though New York is technically blue, having voted for John Kerry and Al Gore before him, and Louisiana, red.
There are both obvious and subtle reasons for this. Many conservatives disapproved of both the Clinton administration's foreign policy and the first President Bush's failure to remove Iraq's Saddam Hussein. To them, U.S. behavior in the Middle East during the 1990s was dilettantish. They long worried that inconsistency abroad would eventually bring war closer to the U.S.
The Twin Towers conflagration seemed a tragic confirmation of their 1990s fears. Sept. 11 provided justification for action they believed needed to be taken in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Sept. 11 also fits in Red State lore because of the way New York responded. Republicans cherish local government and Sept. 11 was a moment where local seemed to rule. Mayor Rudy Giuliani took charge — not Governor George Pataki, and not President George W. Bush. Bush was guest, not host, at the New York events in that first week.
A Local Moment
To be sure, money flowed from Washington, but Giuliani led in a manner so inspiring that he even seemed to be setting U.S. foreign policy. The mayor attracted international attention, for example, by refusing a check for $10 million that Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal offered. (The mayor didn't like the fact that the prince used the occasion to suggest that his gift had something to do with his Palestinian brethren "slaughtered at the hands of Israelis.") This distinguished Giuliani from both the Bushes, father and son, who had spent the preceding decades ingratiating themselves with the House of Saud.
What else makes Sept. 11 red? Red states embrace patriotism, and September 2001 represented a patriotic high for the country not seen since before the Vietnam War. Just after the attacks, the president retreated to an air base that happened to be located in, of all states, Louisiana. In a sort of foreshadowing of Katrina, the late TV news anchor Peter Jennings criticized Bush, vaguely suggested that at a time like this the president should be in Washington.
More than 10,000 calls clogged the phone lines at ABC. There was no talk about political damage for Bush. It was Jennings who retreated, and an ABC executive said that the public reaction was "terribly depressing."
Meanwhile, the country's Blue State souls were silent. Some even seemed to support Bush. There was no other way he could have gotten those sky-high post-9/11 approval ratings without some blue support. Of course the ratings came when he acted like a blue state pol, promising billions for New York's recovery.
But acceptance soon turned to frustration. The Blue Staters of Manhattan quickly came to find the patriotic declarations and the flags jingoistic. Later, the slow progress of the Iraq occupation made them even more restless. Bush's policy was failing, they believed, but the political recognition of their perception wasn't forthcoming. And they had no commensurate tragedy to moralize about.
Katrina supplied that tragedy. The traditional blue-state story line is that America is a country divided, where the poor are nickled-and-dimed. The images at the Superdome of people in blankets, poor people, seemed to support that story. So did the fact that the wealthy and white had left, whereas blacks and seniors were stuck as the water.
Unlike Giuliani, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin demanded more help from Washington and decried the limits on what the city did receive. President Bush hesitated to take charge, probably out of respect for traditional federalism. But this time it was Bush's turn to apologize, not Jennings'. Press and television devoted non-stop coverage to the failure of the Bush administration to act. It was the Red Staters' turn to remain mute.
Katrina helped the Blue Staters find their voice. Their fury was so loud it took Republicans aback, but it shouldn't have, given the years the Blues had waited. Nagin, the mayor who blamed Washington, is feeling so good that he is now thinking about running for governor. The Bush presidency hasn't been the same since.
That's the political reality. It's a shame. Some 3,000 people died when the terrorists attacked. Katrina killed more than 1,800. And Americans have become so partisan that they can't share a eulogy.
(Amity Shlaes, a senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.
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