Bush & Katrina, Craig Sex Scandal

President Bush makes an appearance in New Orleans on the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and Idaho Sen. Larry Craig finds himself on the wrong side of the law. Farai Chideya talks politics with syndicated columnist Donna Brazile and Ron Christie, vice president of the lobbying firm DC Navigators.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Two years ago today, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. The storm and flooding killed nearly 2,000 people and cost tens of billions of dollars in damage. President Bush marked the two-year anniversary with a visit to the Crescent City.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: One thing that kind of give a speech in Jackson Square it's another thing to keep paying attention to whether or not progress is being made. And I hope people understand we do. We're still paying attention.

CHIDEYA: Many of the presidential hopefuls are also dropping in, including Democratic Senators Clinton and Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee.

For more, we've got Ron Christie, vice president of the lobbying firm DC Navigators and a former special assistant to President George W. Bush. And Donna Brazile, a nationally syndicated columnist. She teaches at Georgetown University. Welcome guys.

Mr. RON CHRISTIE (Vice President, DC Navigators): Nice to be with you both.

Professor DONNA BRAZILE (Columnist; Government, Georgetown University): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So, Donna, for the last two years, the president has taken a beating politically for the government's botched response to Katrina. Is it time to move forward?

Prof. BRAZILE: Well, no. Look, the fact is, is that the federal government has invested billions of dollars into the recovery of the Gulf Coast. Louisiana, while receiving a good portion of that money, has not received its fair share to really get the recovery fully on the way.

We're still coping with vulnerable levees, closed hospitals, lack of affordable housing. I am grateful that the president is there and I respect the words that he said today that the federal government is still paying attention. But the federal government need to work very closely with both the Louisiana state government as well as the local government to insure that the money that is coming down the pipeline is not wrapped in a lot of federal red tape. And Ron knows what I'm talking about when I say red tape from the federal government.

CHIDEYA: Before we go to Ron, Donna, do you think the problem is that there is not enough money allocated, that it's not getting to who it needs or that because Louisiana has been under Democratic leadership? And Mississippi, which was also hit under Republican leadership, that there's been a pursing(ph) out of money differently?

Prof. BRAZILE: Well, all of the above. You just hit it - the nail on the head. First of all, our Road Home program was funded at $6 billion but we needed an additional $3 to $4 billion to cover all of the homeowners that were struck by both Hurricane Rita as well as Katrina. Louisiana has not received this federal - its full federal share, the appropriated money.

Mississippi has gotten a great deal more money in terms of the damages so I would hope that when Congress resume, that both the Republican White House and the Democratic-control Congress to sit down together to give the people of Louisiana their fair share so that we can get to - get the state back up and running.

Look, one thing that everyone should understand is that we're deeply grateful for the money that we've received.

Louisiana feeds the nation. We fuel the nation. We provide 30 percent of the natural petroleum in this country. We provide well over 25 percent of the seafood. Twenty percent of the agricultural products come through our port. So Louisiana should be rebuilt but we need federal assistance and we also need the state and local government working together.

CHIDEYA: Now Ron, for this president and for the next president - whoever it is - how big is solving the problem in the Gulf Coast in terms of priority? And what do you think this president will do and also what responsibility do you think the next president will take?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, given the massive devastation that took place in Louisiana and Mississippi and along the Gulf Coast, I think President Bush has responded and working in a non-partisan fashion with the Congress to make sure that those federal resources that need to go down to the Gulf Coast are provided.

I agree in one of the comments that Donna made is that unfortunately in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, a lot of the money had been caught up in red tape and bureaucratic snafus. But of the $114 billion that the federal government has set aside for the Gulf Coast, nearly 84 percent or 96 billion has been disbursed.

Clearly until we rebuild the homes, until we reopen the schools and until those who want to work and want to be in the Gulf Coast are able to do so, I think it will be a focus for this president - this administration but also for the next president of the United States. We've already set aside $7 billion to rebuild the levees and to strengthen the levees. But the president has FY09 budget has also set aside another $7 billion.

This president and the next leader of the United States must take every step necessary to insure that if another serious hurricane reaches the Gulf Coast that they will be protected from the sort of devastation we've seen from Katrina but at the same time, we need to help those Americans get back on their feet and reopen one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

CHIDEYA: Donna, before we move on, you are a Louisiana native, your family was affected. How do they feel things are going? How are they doing?

Prof. BRAZILE: You know, they are very disappointed. I've never seen so much anguish and so much stress on, you know, not just my family but families as I go home almost monthly to see them. Half - I'm one of nine children - half of my siblings had been able to return and the other half are still displaced.

Some have decided to relocate elsewhere. But those who are back, they're struggling. They're struggling with lack of schools in the neighborhoods. They're struggling with the hospitals that are not reopened. They're struggling with just the everyday things that most people take for granted. Going to a grocery store, which now takes a 20, 30-minute drive and of course, trying to find appropriate day care.

So we should do everything in our power to help the people of the Gulf Coast recover from one of the worse natural disasters in our country. And thank you for asking about my family and the people at Gulf Coast, because I love them all. They're all family.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. Well, Ron, I'm going to move us on to Alberto Gonzales. The AG, attorney general, resigned. And you were an insider with the administration. Why do you think Gonzales chose to leave now?

Mr. CHRISTIE: Well, I think anytime when you serve at the pleasure of the president of the United States that your sole focus is to insure that you're not a distraction to the president and you're not a distraction from the mission that the president has asked you to fulfill.

And unfortunately, through I think it is graceful conduct of the members of the House and the Senate Judiciary Committee in particular, the Attorney General has been hounded, he's been attacked, he's been smeared personally. And the Attorney General recognized that it was in the best interest of the president that he stepped aside.

And I have to tell you, I have never, in the 17 years I've been involved in public service, seen a more disgraceful bit of conduct by the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the way that they went after this individual.

I didn't always agree with the Attorney General but if you look at a couple of specific instances, one, the firing of the U.S. attorneys - that was well within the purview of the president of the United States to remove those folks because he served at his pleasure. And second, the warrant-less wiretap provision. It was well within the authority, the constitutional authority for the president to exercise that right, something has gone all the way back to the civil war and Abraham Lincoln. But this was mere partisan politics at its worst, and the Attorney General recognized that it was time and it was the best interest for him to serve the president by stepping aside.

CHIDEYA: Now Donna, what, specifically, about the civil rights and civil liberties communities. They have been gunning for Alberto Gonzales. Are they satisfied or is there another fight ahead with whoever comes in next?

Prof. BRAZILE: I think Alberto Gonzales left a huge cloud over the Department of Justice. He lost his personal credibility. He lost the confidence of members of Congress not just the Democrats but many Republicans who felt that his testimony and his presentations lacked integrity. So this is an opportunity for the president to bring about real change at the Department of Justice. The civil rights community is dismayed at his lack of enforcement of civil rights laws, but more importantly, how the civil rights department became a very partisan division of the Justice Department. Alberto Gonzales' lack of respect for fundamental civil liberties also got him in trouble with many on Capitol Hill.

But again, this resignation was long overdue. He has lost the confidence of the Congress. He's lost the credibility of the American people. And, look, I'm not about to cry any tears over Alberto Gonzales. Think about those eight U.S. attorneys who thought that they were being fired because of incompetence but learned later that it was for some political reasons. So may Alberto Gonzales retire happily in Texas or wherever he may go.

CHIDEYA: All right. We got to move on. One last topic: Idaho Senator Larry Craig arrested in June at an airport in Minnesota, pled guilty on August 8. Here's what he had to say.

Senator LARRY CRAIG (Republican, Idaho): While I was not involved in any inappropriate conduct at the Minneapolis airport or anywhere else, I chose to plead guilty to a lesser charge in hopes of making it go away. I did not seek any counsel, either from an attorney, staff, friends or family. That was a mistake.

CHIDEYA: Ron, are Republicans trying to get him out. You know, Senate Republicans have already initiated an ethics investigation. Are they trying to hustle him out so he can get a replacement rather than running for reelection?

Mr. CHRISTIE: I don't know if Republican leaders are trying to hustle him out, but I think for the good of the party and the good of the United States Senate, Senator Craig needs to go. This is just absolutely a bizarre case. Let me put it to you this way. He pled guilty to this lewd conduct charge. If someone had made these allegations about me and I knew that they weren't true, I would have fought that with every last bit of air I had in my body until I got this charges dropped and released. But for a member of the United States Senate? Someone who is the senior senator from the state of Idaho to behave in this sort of way, he needs to go. It's a disgrace to the citizens of Idaho and they need far better representation than this man can give.

CHIDEYA: And finally, Donna, same question: Do the Republicans have a high stake in getting him out?

Prof. BRAZILE: Oh, absolutely. With 33 Senate seats up next year, and many of the Republican seats, they clearly would like to hold on to this seat. That's the first thing. But, secondly, my heart goes out to Senator Craig's, you know, family and staff. They didn't deserve this. He didn't even inform his family about his arrest or pleading guilty and, of course, his staff. But I agree 100 percent with Ron. I think he should resign. And if there's any legal remedy for Senator Craig, then allow him to go through that, but he shouldn't be a member of the United States Senate.

CHIDEYA: Well, Ron and Donna, thank you very much.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Pleasure to be with you as always.

Prof. BRAZILE: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Ron Christie is vice president of the lobbying firm D.C. Navigators, also a former special assistant to President George W. Bush. And Donna Brazile is a nationally syndicated columnist. She teaches at Georgetown University in D.C. And they spoke with us from NPR's Washington, D.C. headquarters.

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