Roundtable: Katrina Aftermath, NAACP on Roberts

Thursday's topics: efforts to help those affected by Hurricane Katrina; the NAACP and other civil rights groups step in to the debate over Supreme Court nominee John Roberts. Guests: Eric Deggans, columnist for the St. Petersburg Times; Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; and Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition.

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On today's Roundtable, President Bush's response to Katrina and the NAACP's response to John Roberts, just two of the issues on the Roundtable. Joining us from Washington, Mary Frances Berry, professor history at the University of Pennsylvania; from our New York bureau, Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition; and from the Pointer Institute in Florida, Eric Deggans, a columnist for the St. Petersburg Times.

I thank you all for joining us. Before we get started, we want to take a quick listen to the president. This morning he appeared on "Good Morning America." Let's take a listen. OK. We'll come back to that. I understand that we're having difficulty pulling that clip up.

Mary, one of the things that we heard was the president suggesting that this, in fact, could be the worst natural disaster we've had to deal with in this country. But you also have to juxtapose that with the Bush administration cutting federal control funding by 44 percent to New Orleans to pay for the Iraqi War. And let us be clear, even if that 44 percent had been there, the city still would have been in dire straits. But when you juxtapose the two, it does seem almost surreal with what we're going through.

Professor MARY FRANCES BERRY (University of Pennsylvania): I think that's absolutely right, Ed. What struck me about what I heard that Mr. Bush had to say and the federal response is the--not enough National Guardsmen on the ground. The local officials are trying to put the best face on it, but obviously, every time you have an event like this in New Orleans or anywhere else, or any natural disaster, you're going to have looting. You're going to have chaos. And you need more boots on the ground there, and they don't have them. That was the first thing. The second thing is the weak sort of response to the rescue effort. I've been in the middle of war on the battlefield and I have seen rescue operations, big time, both on water and on land, 20 years ago during the Vietnam War. And the kind of action that took place with sea planes and with rescue, air-to-sea rescue and the like, was on a massive scale. So it seems to be that it ought to be much more possible than moving people one by one up and trying to do something.

Also, everybody knew--it's been in the press since the last hurricane--what would happen if there were a breach in New Orleans. There have been stories about alligators and toxic waste. It was all in the media. So I don't understand why there was not a more aggressive response. Today is a--it's now days after what happened and yesterday, I guess, they had a meeting to discuss what to do. So I think that the response--I'm happy there's is a response, but I would add to what Marc Morial has to say. The response so far has been anemic and I hope that they would speed it up.

GORDON: Eric Deggans, many will suggest that sometimes you deal with catastrophes that are just beyond the pale, beyond your plans and beyond your ability to react in a way that will, in fact, affect everyone affected by these kinds of catastrophes. How much do you lay that that is what we're dealing with here?

Mr. ERIC DEGGANS (Columnist, St. Petersburg Times): Well, when you talk about Bush and the response to the hurricane--perception is everything in politics, obviously. And if you compare what happened to his father and the response to Hurricane Andrew when it hit Florida in 1992, what you find is that the perception in his father's response was that it wasn't effective enough. He was at the site quite quickly after the hurricane hit, but it took days for hurricane relief to reach people. And the area was sealed off and people felt trapped inside an incredibly dilapidated and destroyed area with no aid that could reach them. And that damaged the father's credibility. Now Bush faces the same challenge. He's got to look like he's in the center of the efforts to help people and the efforts have to be effective. And so far, I agree with Mary, the response has been anemic. We haven't seen a concerted concerned effort until yesterday, even though we knew the storm was coming for days. He's going to have to do a lot better or this is really going to hurt his public image, I think.

GORDON: All right. Before we get Michael Meyers, I'm told we have the clip ready. Let's take a listen.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I fully understand people wanting things to have happened yesterday. I mean, I understand the anxiety of people on the ground. I can imag--I just can't imagine what it's like to be waving a sign that says `Come and get me now.'

GORDON: OK. So, Michael Meyers, he's conceding he understands. And again, bureaucracy, whether we like to admit it or not, takes a moment to move. How much does this speak to the vulnerability--often we talk about terrorist attacks, but natural disasters, catastrophes, just reminding people how vulnerable we all are?

Mr. MICHAEL MEYERS (Director, New York Civil Rights coalition): Well, that's the point. This is a wartime president. This is a president who takes great pride in homeland security. Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans said days before the tsunami hit that this is not a test. This is as real as it gets. We need it days before the--Hurricane Katrina, the escape from New Orleans plan. So my question is--to President Bush is: What did the president know, when should he have known it and done something about the likely effects of this pending natural disaster?

And it had tsunami impact, but did the federal government have a `What if?' Did it have a doomsday plan? Did it have evacuation, relocation assistance? Did it have a plan, an answer, to: What if the levees broke, is the Superdome's--if the Superdome's power went out? What if the city flooded? Why didn't we know--me--we meaning the federal government and the people in charge of the federal government and the Homeland Security offices--know and have contingency planning and not just troops but assistance in terms of getting people out, evacuating them? Now we're talking about a response...

GORDON: Yeah.

Mr. MEYERS: ...of course, as opposed to a plan of action, and this is not a Rose Garden strategy.

Prof. BERRY: Now we....

GORDON: Now, Mary, here's the true concern that many are having--Mary Frances Berry--and that is that if what Michael Meyers intimates is true, that the plan was not in place. Some suggest that it still isn't for the aftermath and that we're planning on the fly to the detriment, particularly of the poor in New Orleans and Mississippi and Alabama and all of the states that have been ravaged by this hurricane?

Prof. BERRY: Yes, I wanted to reinforce that it's not just New Orleans. As tragic as that is, and I love that place--but up and down that coast, all those poor people who live there and who have no resources and couldn't get out, and now with everything devastated, their lives--it's not just the--it's their jobs or lack thereof. It's their very livelihoods. And what are they going to do, the ones that are still alive? And what about finding the dead and the concerns that are there?

And there does not seem to have been in place--and if there were, it wasn't implemented--some kind of plan. And we've had hurricanes before. It's not like this is the first hurricane and we even have predictions that there are going to be more and more and more. So what indeed was on the drawing board here? We have all these plans for what we do in Iraq and what we do in other places. What about reconstruction? What about the engineers? What about they reconstruct things in Iraq. They do bridges. I've seen them do it in the middle of war I've seen them plug up holes.

Mr. MEYERS: But my point is the engineers should have been in before the hurricane with respect to the levees and things like that. And, of course, afterwards, we're going to need a martial plan. We're going to need the president to do more than surveil things from the sky. He needs to put a public face on this trag...

GORDON: Yet I'm sure that the White House would tell you that it could not send those people to New Orleans because you don't know if it's going to, as it did, as we thought, and the levees breaking seem to be the major problem, but because of the non-exact nature of a hurricane, you don't know where to send them whether they skipped over to Miami.

Mr. MEYERS: Then you're saying that Ray Nagin is a liar because Ray Nagin said this is not a task. He said it's the real deal...

Mr. DEGGANS: Well, one of the things--if I could break in...

Mr. MEYERS: ...it doesn't get any more real than this.

Mr. DEGGANS: ...as somebody who lives in Florida and has seen the president's brother Jeb Bush handle hurricanes, what I will say is that Jeb Bush has always been very effective in marshaling the local resources before the hurricane hits. We always know the hurricane is coming days before it reaches. We have emergency management people who are very well trained. They have their plans in place. Jeb Bush is always at the center of the action before the hurricane hits. He's there in the Emergency Management offices. When the hurricane hits, he's right there delivering updates, letting people know that he is in control of the response and that he is there directing people and getting information and this is something we did not see our president do and...

Prof. BERRY: And we also didn't see the governors doing it either. Let's be fair about it.

Mr. DEGGANS: Exactly. And this may, you know, just be a coincidence of timing but he was on vacation, and when he comes back from vacation, does he go to the site to empathize with people? No. He flies over it in a plane...

Mr. MEYERS: That was my point about a public face. Right.

Mr. DEGGANS: ...and he dips down to 2,500 feet and looks at it and then goes to Washington. And so I think this president has not necessarily learned the lessons of even his brother or his father in regards to Katrina.

Mr. MEYERS: He's not being compassionate.

GORDON: Let me do this. Let me turn our attention to what this, in fact, could affect and that is obviously this president's approval rating. We have seen it slip to a career low of 45 percent according to the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll. Certainly some will suggest that the goings on and how the administration carries out the duties will indeed affect this. Michael Meyers, does this matter and will it matter to a lame-duck president who often does not look at polls as often as they do in the first term?

Mr. MEYERS: No, it doesn't matter at all. President Bush doesn't care about polls because as Walter Mondale told us many years ago, polls don't vote, people vote. And he's already been elected and he's not up for re-election anymore. And the next time the people do vote is November 2006. It won't be for George Bush and then November 2008 for a new president.

Look, Laura Bush knows him best.

GORDON: What I would...

Mr. MEYERS: Laura Bush told us that he's a man who likes to sleep. He's a man who's asleep at the job. And people knew that when they re-elected him.

Mr. DEGGANS: What I would say is that this may not be a president who watches polls, but he's dealing with a Congress that does. And when you see legislators like Chuck Hagel step forward and make the Vietnam analogy, you know, break ranks with the Republicans, I think we're going to see more of that as his poll numbers dip.

Mr. MEYERS: You're saying Congress is going to withdraw us from Iraq. Is that what you're saying? Come on.

Prof. BERRY: Now, guys, if I can get in. What I think about this aspect of it, Ed, is that when the congresspeople who are from those states--and after all, those are states that voted Republican--are going to be leaning very hard if they haven't already on him to do something, the governor of Mississippi, you know, Haley Barbour, all those folks. And my hope is that he will awaken from his lethargy--Mr. Bush I mean--and do something and do it faster than is going on now. I mean, just appearing with a bunch of suited up Cabinet members and talking about, you know, how many meals we've distributed and blah, blah, blah, and kicking off a bunch of things isn't going to do it. And I had hoped that he would wake up before this, but, you know, time is passing and it's urgent...

GORDON: Yeah.

Prof. BERRY: ...and we need to do something.

Mr. MEYERS: He's putting people on the Supreme Court.

GORDON: Let me quickly turn our attention to something else, Michael, and we will certainly be continuing our coverage of the disasters down in the south region of our country as the days go by but we want to make sure that we take a look at this very quickly. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has formally announced opposition to John G. Roberts, the nominee for the US Supreme Court vacancy, calling Mr. Roberts a consistent and active advocacy for weakening the federal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, affirmative action, school desegregation, fair housing, etc., etc. Mary, when you hear this, is this too little too late? Is this something that they had to do? How much do you believe this will play a role in the process of Mr. Roberts ascending to the bench?

Prof. BERRY: Two things. The odds are that Roberts will get confirmed unless he turns out to be an ax murderer and somebody knows it and that isn't likely, but there's still a shot at it. And the LDF had to do what they did because once the record was looked at, it was tough not to. I happen to have been reading memos from John Roberts even before he was nominated in connection with some other writing I'm doing. And I had ordered all these memos from the Reagan Library on civil rights during the Reagan years. He was just a consistent advocate ideologically of the opposition to rights across the board, narrow, confined view of what should be done and all the things that are in the LDF report and others are correct. The question is whether or not there can be enough opposition to him mounted based on the record and if they can get the materials when he was in the solicitor's office which they should be able to get. But based on the record, there was no other outcome and it was important that the LDF do this because they're the most credible litigation outfit on the civil rights front.

Mr. MEYERS: Well, it's just not the Legal Defense Fund. It's both NAACP. It's the NAACP proper. It's the Legal Defense Fund. It's the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund and lots of women's groups. Look, what we know now is that this is not a stealth candidate. This guy was vetted. You have to be pretty deaf and pretty blind not to hear and see the nominee's hostility of civil rights. And I think that to quote so-called brilliant--although he can't remember whether or not he was associated with the Federalist Society--the fact that he's a friendly person--it reminds me of that old song, `Smiling faces tell lies,' and that's the truth.

Prof. BERRY: Well, I...

Mr. MEYERS: Beware of the pat on the back because it just might hold you back.

Prof. BERRY: Michael. Michael.

Mr. MEYERS: Again, Mayor Nagin is spreading the ...(unintelligible).

GORDON: We got the lyrics from undisputed truth.

Prof. BERRY: Michael. Michael...

GORDON: Go ahead, Mary.

Mr. MEYERS: This is not a tax.

Prof. BERRY: ...you were slapping me down for emphasizing the LDF contribution. What I'm saying is...

Mr. MEYERS: I'm not slapping you down.

Prof. BERRY: ...that since this is a justice position...

Mr. MEYERS: I'm making a point that the opposition to Judge Roberts is...

GORDON: Hold on. Hold on, Michael. Go ahead, Mary.

Mr. MEYERS: ...more than the Defense Fund.

Prof. BERRY: ...since this is a legal matter, this appointment to the court, for the Civil Rights Coalition, it was absolutely essential that organizations like the Legal Defense Fund, NAACP and MALDEF, who are the litigation arms of this activity, come out against him. If they'd come out in favor of him, then they would have had a real problem. So I'm saying it's absolutely important to the coalition in its efforts to lobby that, in fact, you had these respected litigation firms coming out and saying, `We don't think looking at the record that this is the right guy.'

GORDON: All right. Eric, jump in for me.

Mr. DEGGANS: What I would say is, yes, it was totally predictable that these groups would come out and oppose Roberts' nomination, particularly given his record, but given Bush's poll numbers, given the way people are feeling about his administration now, I think they're going to have a more ready audience than maybe they would have had even a month ago. This may be more of a fight now than it would have been when he was first announced. You notice the tenor and tone of the coverage when he was first announced was, `Well, this is going to be a shoo-in.' And, of course, people still think that he will be confirmed, but it seems now that it's going to be a much tougher fight. And I think those who would oppose his nomination have been emboldened by the president's difficulties.

Prof. BERRY: And we have--yeah.

Mr. MEYERS: What I have a problem with is that this is a person who actually...

GORDON: Michael, really quick.

Mr. MEYERS: ...called for stripping the federal courts of their jurisdiction over school busing cases...

GORDON: All right.

Mr. MEYERS: ...over school prayer cases...

Prof. BERRY: Well, that...

Mr. MEYERS: ...over desegregation, who's hostile to affirmative action.

GORDON: All right. Got to stop you there. Got to stop you there.

Prof. BERRY: That's all true but Eric is right. Things that may look really bad in August on these nominations...

GORDON: Yeah.

Prof. BERRY: ...sometimes in September things change.

GORDON: All right. Mary Francis Berry, Michael Meyers, Eric Deggans, thank you all for joining us and, Michael, the undisputed truth thanks you for bringing up those lyrics.

You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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