The Destruction of the Can-Do Spirit

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“Let’s look at this thing from a standpoint of status. What do we got on the spacecraft that’s good?”

The most tragic loss in Louisiana and Mississippi is without a doubt the massive loss of life. But one of the long-term consequences of the failure of Our Most Texan Emperor will be the crushing blow to our belief that we’re a can-do country. We always believed, I think, that after all the acrimony, partisanship, and even bigotry, Americans were still competent at doing.

We were the people who worked the problem, who began the Berlin Airlift the day after the Wall went up, who put men on the Moon. The list of American technological and logistical accomplishments is, when considered in its totality, truly awesome. For better (and worse), the U.S. was always identified as having a “can-do” attitude: eventually, we’ll solve the problem. To paraphrase what many involved with the space program used to say: it wasn’t a miracle, we just decided to do it.

Watching FEMA this last week has shattered that notion. I think that’s why we’re seeing the Media Formerly Known as Journalism rage against the Bush Machine (e.g., Tim Russert). The experts warned again and again that this could happen, and nothing was done; then Bush exacerbated the problem by cutting funding even more. And when it looked like the Big One would hit (and the forecasts on Sunday predicted an even more devastating storm than what actually hit), El Supremo did nothing.

Then for three days, the Administration dithered. We can’t argue whether Bush made good or bad calls, because he didn’t make any call whatsoever. It’s his job to fix those jurisdictional arguments, not stay on vacation. And when the plan goes to crap, start improvising. Do something, anything. Maybe some places will get too many supplies, and some too few. But give some orders; go down fighting.

When the situation went sideways, where was the stereotypical U.S. improvisation? That’s one unstated reason why this hurts so bad: Americans the Republican-controlled and reality-purged Executive Branch didn’t work the problem. Americans showed up with their own boats, in a Dunkirk-like spirit, and they were turned away. Desperate local officials had their communications cut by FEMA (really–and I haven’t heard any explanation why). Ready and waiting military hospital ships weren’t used…anywhere. In-country military units weren’t activated before the storm hit, which was not the case during two previous Republican administrations (Nixon and Bush Sr.). Other municipalities that offered aid and assistance were rebuffed, when, in fact, anyone with a televsion set or internet connection could see that they were desperately needed.

What stings bad, what makes this a visceral stab in the gut, is that when it really mattered, we were ‘couldn’t-do’, not can-do. This isn’t to say that there aren’t many, many heros from the last week. There are so many, and we are all indebted to them. But those who were elected to lead us, and swore oaths to protect us, failed us. And they did something else too: they weakened our spirit. Thank God we are better than those who claim to lead us.

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