Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Victims less angry than Bush-haters

Monday, September 19, 2005
By Ruth Ann Dailey

Instead of "he said, she said," today's column concerns "They said, you said, I said."

"They" are the hardy souls rounded up by ABC News to listen to President Bush's speech to the nation Thursday night. I happened to tape the event and was so astonished by it that I made a transcript. What they said illuminates what you said in response to what I said -- or what you think I said -- last Monday.

Reporter Dean Reynolds found a dozen people -- all African-Americans -- who'd been evacuated from the flooded streets of New Orleans, sat with them outside the Houston Astrodome and interviewed them as soon as the president's speech ended.

Reynolds' first question was to a woman named Connie London: "You heard the president say you are not alone . . . Do you believe him?"

"Yes," she said, "because here in Texas they've been truly good to us."

"Did you harbor any anger toward the president because of the slow federal response?"

"No, none whatsoever," London replied, "because I feel our city and state government should have been there before the federal government was called in. They should have been on their jobs."

"And they weren't?" Reynolds asked.

"No, no, no, no, Lord, they weren't," she stated. "They had RTA buses, Greyhound buses, school buses that were just sitting there going under water when they could have been evacuating people."

Reynolds asked a woman named Mary if she gleaned hope from the president's words.

"Yes," she replied.

"Why?" he asked.

"Because I really believe what he said."

He turned to Brenda Marshall and asked, "What did you think of what the president said tonight?"

"I think the speech was wonderful."

"Was there anything you found hard to believe? You know, that's nice rhetoric but the proof is in the pudding?"

"No, I didn't," she answered, with an apologetic shrug.

"Well....good," Reynolds fumbled. "Very little skepticism here."

After nearly ten minutes of similar good will, I half expected Reynolds to turn to the camera and wail, "Can we get some new people here?" But he kept fishing. "Cecilia," he said to another woman, "did you think the president was sincere here tonight?"

"Yes, he was," she said.

"Do you think this was a little too late?" Finally he got a bite when she repeated his words without passion: "To me, it was too late."

Reynolds turned back to Connie and asked, "Do you blame anybody for this?"

"Hell, yes!" she exclaimed. "They've been allocated federal funds to fix the levee system, and it never got done. I fault the mayor of this city, I really do."

At that point, Reynolds thanked them for their time, and Ted Koppel remarked, "If the national response is reflected by that small group of people, then the president has made some major progress tonight."

Or maybe the group's responses indicated that the president had less progress to make than the questions assumed he did. The ABC broadcast put in stark contrast the attitude of the black and lower-income flood victims and that of the privileged white men conducting the show. The survivors were calm, careful about where they directed what little anger they expressed and smilingly apologetic that they weren't giving the TV guys the roiling passions and bitter recriminations so clearly expected of them.

That passion and bitterness came in my e-mail last week -- along with thoughtfulness, respectful disagreement and heartfelt gratitude. To oversimplify and separate the responses to my last column into "pro" and "con," your reactions (more than 150 letters) were pretty evenly divided, despite the column's circulation among anti-Bush bloggers and the attendant outpouring of bile.

I argued last week that we should strive for a sober assessment of responsibility post-Katrina; I did not say none should be laid at Bush's feet. I said our society is increasingly polarized between two opposing world views; I did not say that everyone subscribes to one of them.

I distinguished between reasoned criticism and vitriol. Judging from my mail -- "Goebbels," "you are evil," etc. -- some people can't, or don't want to. I proposed the kindest explanation I could think of -- unresolved grief -- for the excessive rage all around us; I didn't say it was the only explanation.

People who had far more reason than most of us last week to express indiscriminate outrage and vengefulness did not -- even when repeatedly invited to on national television. There's a lesson there for all of us.

(Ruth Ann Dailey is a Post-Gazette staff writer and can be reached at rdailey@post-gazette.com.)

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Wednesday, September 21, 2005 2:38:00 PM  

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