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The Sinking of the President

I know George W. Bush doesn’t like to read very much. And now that he has announced that he will be heading up his own administration’s probe into its handling of Catastrophe Katrina, I know his time must be very tight. Still, he might want to take an evening off and read up on the history of the killer Mexico City earthquake of September 19, 1985. The Mexican government’s outrageous bungling of that disaster was such that a full 20 years later no one knows if the death toll was 4,000, 8,000, or, as some suspect, nearly 20,000.What we do know is that the Mexico City quake set into motion a political process that eventually led to the country’s dominant political party — the PRI — losing its more than half-century grip on the presidency and on the overall system. For more than 50 years, the Mexican people suffered through one outrage after another wrought by the PRI: the systematic impoverishment of the countryside, reversal of land reform, institutionalized government corruption, a failed banking system, a constantly devalued currency, a national state interwoven with drug cartels and a “democracy” operating for the sole benefit of the ruling political party.But it was the 1985 quake — a natural, not human, disaster — that eventually tumbled the PRI out of office. When the Mexican government couldn’t respond in any meaningful way and the people of Mexico City had to come together and dig themselves out of the rubble, all remaining confidence in the regime collapsed. The quake shook off and crumbled the façade of a benign but inefficient democracy and revealed a city scorned and squeezed by its governors. Out-of-code buildings built by criminal contractors — local politicians on their pad — folded like concrete dominoes. Mexicans were horrified to learn that perishing inside those structures were hundreds of hyperexploited seamstresses and other pieceworkers crammed into more than 500 illegal sweatshops.Only by open fraud did the PRI survive national elections three years later. Soon it lost control of Mexico City and then, in 2000, it was displaced from the national palace. All because of a grassroots democracy movement that had been born in the ruins of the 1985 temblor.The American post-Katrina situation is hardly identical. But the similarities are too many and too stark to avoid. Contemplate what the floods of New Orleans have washed up into our own American living rooms: a gasping President Bush who cannot explain how, four years and tens of billions of dollars after 9/11, his Homeland Security apparatus couldn’t manage its first real challenge; a top federal-disaster official whose previous post was director of an elite horse-breeding association and who has been revealed to have no skills other than acute political sycophancy; an American infrastructure hollowed out and impotent from decades of bipartisan erosion and underfunding; several hundred thousand previously invisible, mostly black, very poor people of the sort we have become accustomed to not thinking about very much; and to top it off, a presidential Mother Bush who has done the best Marie Antoinette impression since the sacking of Versailles (saying of the homeless refugees in the Astrodome that they “were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them”).Similar to Mexico’s PRI, Bush has — until now — somehow miraculously survived the most repugnant of his own policies: the massive tax-cut transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, the looting and bankrupting of the national treasury, the policies of torture at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, and the sacrificing of thousands of young Americans in a disastrous and unprovoked foreign war. To paraphrase Don Rumsfeld, the unknowable is rarely knowable. And how would George W. Bush — or Karl Rove, for that matter — have ever known that, in the end, the administration’s political undoing would stem from none of the above, but rather would flow from a flood — from, indeed, a deluge of truly biblical proportions? The rest of the President's term will be played out in the ebb of Katrina. As the waters slowly recede, so will the Bush administration. Never has the term lame duck been more appropriate. The ills and deformities of American society that floated to the surface after last week’s events, however, are not the sole responsibility of the Bush White House. Carterite and Clintonista Democrats have been just as zealous as Reagan and Bush Republicans to starve the state and shred social safety nets. Both parties have equally gorged on legislative pork at the expense of common national priorities. The poorest of Katrina’s victims, living in a uniquely American version of apartheid and now washed toward the edge of oblivion, were already in that situation long before Dubya came to Washington.The chasm of the Two Americas may indeed have been more brightly illuminated by the Bourbon-like sensibilities of the first family, but it was created and maintained by both major parties. The sinking of George Bush will no doubt provide some long-stifled satisfaction for many of his frustrated opponents. But they, too, should brush up on Mexican history. Though the PRI collapsed in 1985, it still took a full 15 years for the opposition to clear the political detritus and finally come to power. When a triumphant Vicente Fox assumed the presidency five years ago, neither he nor his opposition forces had a clear, alternative proposal to put forward, other than, “We are not the PRI.” The burnish lasted barely two years. Today, few of Mexico’s fundamental problems have been solved. Soaring voter expectations have been soured. And the PRI is once again resurgent.

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