The August 8 firestorm on the Hawaiian island of Maui took at least 115 lives, with another 388 officially listed as missing more than two weeks later. Five days after the devastation, a vacationing President Biden was asked about the horrifying death toll. “No comment,” he said.
It was nearly two full weeks after the disaster, on August 21, that Biden took a break from his second vacation of the month to visit the island. He decided to tell the survivors of Lahaina — a town almost completely destroyed by the flames — about a small kitchen fire he endured in the early 2000s.
“We have a little sense, Jill and I, what it’s like to lose a home,” the President weirdly insisted, even though he and his family did not lose their home.
Instead of pouncing on Biden’s blunders, the media politely hid them from viewers. After Biden’s inexplicable “no comment,” MRC’s Kevin Tober found none of the three evening newscasts mentioned it amid their otherwise heavy coverage of the Maui disaster. Tober records those same newscasts would not allow any airtime for Biden’s bizarre kitchen fire anecdote the following week.
Instead, viewers heard reporters testifying about Biden’s compassion and empathy. “Being there face to face with the survivors, as he will be doing over the course of the next couple hours, really allows him to demonstrate that compassion for the community,” NBC’s Peter Alexander spun during live coverage of Biden’s trip on August 21.
Over on CNN that same day, White House reporter Jeremy Diamond said the trip would permit Biden to show off his “signature empathy, that role of Consoler-in-Chief that has been a critical part of his political life and, of course, of his presidency.”
The media’s kid-gloves treatment of Biden stands in stark contrast to the withering attacks unleashed against then-President George W. Bush in the wake of the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina.
Eighteen years ago this week, Katrina lashed the Gulf Coast and flooded New Orleans. The Coast Guard immediately swung into action, eventually saving more than 30,000 lives. Bush was at the scene on September 2, 2005, just four days after the August 29 hurricane (vs. the 13 days it took for Biden to reach Hawaii). At that point, more than 30,000 National Guard troops had been activated.
But it was a terrible disaster with a high death toll, and the liberal media seized the chance to pour criticism on the Republican administration as incompetent and racist in their response. “The dilatory performance of George Bush during the past week has been outrageous,” ex-New York Times editor Howell Raines charged in a September 1, 2005 op-ed.
“If the majority of the hardest hit victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans were white people, they would not have gone for days without food and water,” CBS’s Nancy Giles fumed September 4 on Sunday Morning. Over on MSNBC, host Keith Olbermann scalded Bush as a “21st century Marie Antoinette.”
Here’s a quick look back at how the media treated a Republican President dealing with a terrible natural disaster, with quotes pulled from the MRC’s archives:
■ “The dilatory performance of George Bush during the past week has been outrageous. Almost as unbelievable as Katrina itself is the fact that the leader of the free world has been outshone by the elected leaders of a region renowned for governmental ineptitude....The churchgoing cultural populism of George Bush has given the United States an administration that worries about the House of Saud and the welfare of oil companies while the poor drown in their attics and their sons and daughters die in foreign deserts.”
— Former New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, September 1, 2005.
■ “I don’t know if it’s race or class, to be honest....You do get the feeling that poor people in the country get shafted.... Do you think black America’s sitting there thinking, ‘If these were middle class white people, there’d be cruise ships in New Orleans?’”
— CNN anchor Aaron Brown to Democratic Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones on NewsNight, September 2, 2005.
■ “There have been some that have suggested that race has been a factor because so many of the people in New Orleans who have been suffering, as you well know, are African American....Do you believe, if it was, in fact, a slow response, as many now believe it was, was it in part the result of racism?”
— Wolf Blitzer to Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings on CNN’s The Situation Room, September 2, 2005.
■ “Do you believe the response was slow and or inadequate because, because the overwhelming majority of those people inside New Orleans were stranded are African-American?”
— ABC’s Ron Claiborne to Jesse Jackson on Good Morning America, September 6, 2005.
■ “If the majority of the hardest hit victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans were white people, they would not have gone for days without food and water, forcing many to steal for mere survival. Their bodies would not have been left to float in putrid water....The President has put himself at risk by visiting the troops in Iraq, but didn’t venture anywhere near the Superdome or the convention center, where thousands of victims, mostly black and poor, needed to see that he gave a damn.”
— Contributor Nancy Giles on CBS’s Sunday Morning, September 4, 2005.
■ “The federal response has been lamentable....The response of the government of the most powerful, economically advanced, technologically sophisticated country paled alongside the relief efforts that I’ve seen [mounted by] Third World governments....President Bush, for yet another time, once again showed a lack of instant immediate leadership. Just as we saw him flitting around the country during those initial eleven hours after the attacks on the Twin Towers, we saw him once again at his ranch in Crawford.”
— Newsweek’s Joe Contreras during MSNBC’s live hurricane coverage, September 5, 2005.
■ “I suspect, also, a lot of his [Bush’s] supporters, looking ahead to ’08, are wondering how they can distance themselves from the two words which will define his government, our government: New Orleans. For him, it is a shame, in all senses of the word. A few changes of pronouns in there and he might not have looked so much like a 21st century Marie Antoinette.”
— Keith Olbermann on MSNBC’s Countdown, September 5, 2005.
■ “You know, I’ve been to some pretty lousy places in my life. And Iraq over the past 12 months and Banda Aceh, open graves and bodies. These were Americans, and everyone watching the coverage all week, that kind of reached its peak last weekend, kept saying the same refrain: ‘How is this happening in the United States?’ And the other refrain was, had this been Nantucket, had this been Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, how many choppers would have–”
— NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, September 8, 2005. Audience applause drowned out Williams as he was finishing.
■ “Did government neglect turn a natural disaster into a human catastrophe? And was it rooted in racism?....We’ll ask the only African-American in the Senate, Barack Obama, in an exclusive interview.”
— Host George Stephanopoulos setting up ABC’s This Week, September 11, 2005.
■ “A lot of the people that could help are at war right now fighting another way, and they’ve given them permission to go down and shoot us....George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
— Rapper Kanye West during NBC’s Concert for Hurricane Relief, September 2, 2005.
■ “Hurricane Katrina is George Bush’s Monica Lewinsky. One difference, and I’ll say this, the only difference is this: That tens of thousands of people weren’t stranded in Monica Lewinsky’s vagina. That is the only difference.”
— Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart during his opening remarks on The Daily Show, September 6, 2005.
For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.