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  THE STATE OF THE APOLOGY GAME.  
   
   
  President George W. Bush will address the nation tonight about Hurricane Katrina. As with his immediate response to the attacks on September 11, the president's initial reactions to Katrina were not received favorably. As bodies bloated in New Orleans, Bush chuckled fondly at memories of Trent Lott's front porch (now washed away) and how much fun he'd had in the French Quarter.

After September 11, we wanted a strong leader. Bush floundered early on, taking a good four hours after the first plane hit the north tower to feebly remark that the U.S. would "hunt down and punish those responsible." But he came around after a couple of days, giving these amazing speeches before Congress, at the World Trade Center site (The bullhorn! The bullhorn!) and at the National Cathedral. Hurricane Katrina made us angry and looking for someone to blame. How, in the richest nation in the world, in the year 2005, could our

 
  citizens be abandoned to the elements? Someone needed to come forward and say: "We fucked up."

Will Bush do that tonight? Not in those words, and not that simply.

And so again we remember how much we miss Bill Clinton. Say what you will about him as a president, but the guy sure knew how to say he was sorry. Clinton cast a spell of contrition convincing you that he felt terrible about how everything turned out and he'd do everything

     
 

he could to make it right. And because we forgive (or more likely forget) so easily, Clinton remains a popular past president.

Bush has got some explaining to do…and he hasn't exactly done a stellar job of that. Using Bush's recent marks on Katrina, The Black Table presents the Clinton Contritiometer. (A bullshit detector, if you will.) Our handy rating system works on a scale of 1 to 10. A 1 is the flat by-the-book, lawyer-approved "I-did-not-have-sexual-relations-with-that-woman" denial. A 10 recalls Clinton's August 1998 public apology: "It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible." (Or, as Kurt Cobain put it: "I hate myself and I want to die.)

(Bonus: This play-at-home version also includes some suggestions for what Bush might say tonight. If we're right, you win!)

 

 
  "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."  
  Sept. 1: Good Morning America

Hmm. Well, actually, they did. Quite a few people did. The Army Corps of Engineers knew. The Times-Picayune has mentioned it in the past. Outright denial, especially when you're denying on behalf of everyone never works because it's so easy to prove wrong.

Tonight's spin: "The Army Corpse of Engineers is working hard to repair the levees and ensure that nothing like this ever happens again." Insert number for levee repair fund here.

     
     
  "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."  
  Sept. 2: Touring Mississippi

Brownie, a.k.a., Michael Brown, was the director of FEMA until a few days ago. Before that, he had something to do with setting standards for horse shows. Bush's comment vomited all over the face of logic. While it was never meant to be an apology, its astounding ignorance sets a new low on the scale.

Tonight's spin: Much like Osama, expect no mention of Michael Brown at all. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff will get some one-off nod of support. But the accolades will go to Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen, the new guy in charge of FEMA's Katrina relief. Bush will lay it on so thick, you'll almost forget that the administration originally put a complete bonehead in charge. But then you won't.

     
     
  "Bureaucracy is not going to stand in the way of getting the job done for the people."  
  Sept. 6

So the president who combined a bunch of little bureaucracies and folded them into one, fantastic Wonka-like bureaucracy doesn't want the government meddling by "helping" people. Instead, the government will play possum while the news shows pictures of what could be a war-riddled refugee camp but is actually the United States. This is a classic bait-and-switch. By suggesting the federal government is only ever unhelpful, its impotence is excused.

Tonight's spin: "The federal government will offer any and all assistance required to state and local officials. Together, with the generosity of the American people, we will rebuild the Gulf Coast."

     
     
  "I'm not going to defend the process going in, but I am going to defend the people who are on the front line of saving lives."  
  Sept. 13: East Room appearance with Iraq President Jalal Talabani

While the first part admits some fucked-upedness, Bush reverts safely back into Support The Troops mode. While the troops (or whoever) deserve the praise, the president's continued reliance on this particular idea makes us forget the first part.

Tonight's spin: "I offer the nation's thanks to our brave first responders, be they in the bayou or the desert."

     
     
  "Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government, and to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility."  
  Sept. 13: East Room appearance with Iraq President Jalal Talabani

Exactly what the public wants, but its after-the-factness causes a significant point reduction. But this is Bush admitting a weakness for the first time, so some points are restored. That line will be repeated in some form in tonight's speech, and then we'll never hear anything like it again.

Tonight's spin: "Like you, I am concerned with questions raised by the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina. However, I assure you that the Department of Homeland Security is working tirelessly to protect Americans from harm - natural or manmade, on our own shores or across an ocean."

     
 

 

Aileen Gallagher is a managing editor of The Black Table. She's always wanted to be a speechwriter.