The editor of the liberal American Prospect magazine used an AP story on Bush allegedly being warned about levees being breached in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina touched down as a jumping off point to seethe with wrath against Bush, calling him stupid and a liar and his conservative supporters “sociopaths.”
The next day, the AP story was “clarified” in a way that completely undermined both its and editor Michael Tomasky’s point.
(Update: A reprint of Tomasky's piece tops CBS's Opinion page today, which is even less excusable, given that the underlying AP story was knocked down two days ago.)
Wednesday’s misconceived Associated Press scoop was based on its exclusive Hurricane Katrina video, featuring Bush discussing hurricane preparations with Homeland Security officials.
It opened by falsely stating Bush had been warned of levee breaches in the final pre-landfall briefing August 29:
“In dramatic and sometimes agonizing terms, federal disaster officials warned President Bush and his homeland security chief before Hurricane Katrina struck that the storm could breach levees, put lives at risk in New Orleans' Superdome and overwhelm rescuers, according to confidential video footage.”
But the AP’s Friday night “clarification” of the story by Margaret Ebrahim and John Solomon
“In a Wednesday story, The Associated Press reported that federal disaster officials warned President Bush and his Homeland Security chief before Hurricane Katrina struck that the storm could breach levees in New Orleans, citing confidential video footage of an Aug. 28 briefing. The Army Corps of Engineers considers a breach a hole developing in a levee rather than an overrun. The story should have made clear that Bush was warned about floodwaters overrunning the levees, rather than the levees breaking.”
In other words, the main thrust of the AP story – that Bush had been warned about levee breaches but had done nothing – was false.
Tomasky, blissfully ignorant of the wrinkle Thursday, milked the AP story:
“There will be those who will ape the line put out yesterday by White House spokesman Trent Duffy with regard to the pre-Katrina videotape obtained by the Associated Press. They will say that the tape shows merely that George W. Bush was ‘engaged,’ taking charge, discussing the matter days before Katrina made landfall.
“They’ll say it; they’ll know that they’re lying. What the tape and transcripts show is obvious. Bush didn’t act on these desperate warnings, and then, by Thursday, September 1, lied about them when he said no one ‘anticipated the breach of the levees.’
“I was at a dinner last night when I first heard about this. Someone had a copy of the AP story in his jacket pocket. As I was discussing it with another journalist, his sole response was to shake his head and say, 'Three more years.'
“Good God, I thought; he’s right. We still need to endure three more years (okay, minus seven weeks) of this.
“I’m really not sure at this point that the country and the world will survive three more years of this bumbling, deceitful, artificial, and thoroughly mediocre man, and his bumbling, deceitful, artificial, and thoroughly mediocre courtiers.”
But before getting into high dudgeon over “three more years” of Bush and his gang of mediocrities, perhaps those crack journalists (Tomasky and his unnamed friend) should have spent three minutes reading the actual AP article. It didn’t make the point it claimed to make -- any quote of Bush being warned about breached levees (as opposed to "topped" levees) is suspiciously absent.
Contra Tomasky, Bush didn’t “lie” when he claimed he hadn’t been warned about the levees being breached. His August 29 briefing mentioned only the possibility of the levees being overrun, not being broken, an enormous difference.
In another instance of instant karma, Tomasky went on in his fact-challenged article to mock Bush’s lack of intelligence:
“Liberals, let’s just start saying it insistently and unapologetically: We were not being ‘elitists’; we were right in the first place -- he is just not smart enough to be the president of the United States.)”
As Mickey Kaus explained even before the AP corrected itself (scroll up, emphases by Kaus):
“A good deal of the gleeful Froomkinian outrage in the press and Democratic party over that pre-Katrina video seems to be based on what is at best is a semantic misunderstanding. After Katrina, Bush said ‘I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.’ In the video, Patterico points out, Bush is warned by hurricane expert Max Mayfield that there's a chance the ‘levees will be topped.’ Topping is different than breaching, no? When a levee's ‘topped,’ or ‘overtopped,’ some water sloshes over it and into the city. Then the storm passes and that's it. When a levee's ‘breached,’ there's a hole in the levee and Lake Pontchartrain pours in the gap and keeps pouring in until the city is completely flooded. What Bush said after the storm seems quite consistent with what Mayfield told him before the storm--i.e., he thought the levees might be topped by the storm surge but not that they'd be breached, with the catastrophe that resulted.”
Note also how the AP “clarified” its story late on a Friday, the witching hour for good PR firms to release bad news.
Clay Waters is editor of TimesWatch.