Bush to Address Nation on Hurricane Katrina Alex Chadwick talks to three different political veterans about what they want to hear from President Bush during his prime-time speech Thursday night about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath: Peter Robinson, a speechwriter for presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; Michael Franc, vice-president of the Heritage Foundation conservative think tank; and Slate chief political correspondent John Dickerson.

Bush to Address Nation on Hurricane Katrina

Bush to Address Nation on Hurricane Katrina

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Alex Chadwick talks to three different political veterans about what they want to hear from President Bush during his prime-time speech Thursday night about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath: Peter Robinson, a speechwriter for presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; Michael Franc, vice-president of the Heritage Foundation conservative think tank; and Slate chief political correspondent John Dickerson.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, as President Bush gets ready to talk to the country about what happened after Hurricane Katrina, African-Americans are listening critically.

The speeches are our lead today as two new polls show the president in serious political trouble. Surveys from NBC and The Wall Street Journal and from the New York Times and CBS find approval for Mr. Bush as low or lower than it's ever been, at about 40 percent. Both surveys found huge disparities by race. More than two-thirds of black Americans think the government responded slowly to the crisis on the Gulf Coast in part because so many victims are poor and black. Madeleine Brand will have more on that in a moment.

First, The Washington Post today reports that in the speech tonight, the president will propose spending as much as $200 billion in the next year to help repair the destruction caused by Katrina. For specifics on what Mr. Bush might say, we've asked for speech suggestions from three political thinkers. We begin with a Republican presidential speechwriter. He's Peter Robinson, now at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He says the president must speak to heart, mind and politics.

Mr. PETER ROBINSON (Hoover Institution, Stanford University): Absolutely acharacteristically for this White House, they were very late in responding to the crisis in New Orleans. And that first photograph of him peering out the window of Air Force One as he flew overhead made him look like the Great White Father in the air. It was just terrible. So in any speech, any presidential speech, the first act is to establish a shared community of feeling.

CHADWICK: Well, former presidential speechwriter, what would you have him say?

Mr. ROBINSON: This notion--I said heart, mind and politics. Mind is important because there are very important questions. Why did New York respond so well to 9/11 whereas New Orleans responded so poorly to Hurricane Katrina? How does the federal government handle itself in such a situation while still preserving the federalist relationship with the state and local governments laid out in the Constitution? He shouldn't go on and on about those, but he should let us know that somebody--a commission, a study group in the White House--is going to address them.

And then there's this question--I say politics, but it's really--the central substance of this speech, he needs to tell us what he intends to do. Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 70: `Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government.' George Bush has just come off a long vacation in Texas. Acharacteristically once again for George W. Bush, this has been a moment of lassitude, of drift. That just has to end.

CHADWICK: This is a question I'm putting to everyone. He's already said he accepts responsibility for what he says were the failures of the federal government in response to Katrina. Does he need to say, `I'm sorry'?

Mr. ROBINSON: I don't think so. Nobody wants to see a president of the United States grovel. In my judgment, they underreacted a couple of weeks ago as the hurricane was actually blowing through. It would be terrible if they overreacted when the president gives this speech.

CHADWICK: Peter Robinson, research fellow at the Hoover Institution, former presidential speechwriter.

Peter, thank you.

Mr. ROBINSON: Alex, a pleasure.

CHADWICK: Michael Franc is vice president of The Heritage Foundation. That's a conservative think tank in Washington, DC. He's in charge of outreach to members of the US House and Senate and their staffs.

Michael Franc, what do you think the president should say?

Mr. MICHAEL FRANC (The Heritage Foundation): This is his moment to implement a lot of what he talks about when he mentions the policies behind the ownership society.

CHADWICK: So what would that be?

Mr. FRANC: Well, refashioning some education policies so that some of that federal money would go not from institution to institution but to the child him or herself, so that a dislocated kid from New Orleans would be eligible for basically a federal voucher to use in the school to which they then go.

CHADWICK: School vouchers. OK, that's one recommendation he could make. Go on.

Mr. FRANC: Individually oriented health care assistance, whether it's in the form of a refundable tax credit or reforms to the Medicaid program that would allow for a voucher to help them purchase everything from vaccinations to a full-blown health care policy, so they're not beholden to the plan in one state and then they can actually have some flexibility.

CHADWICK: Should the president say to the country and to the people of New Orleans, `We are going down there to help rebuild New Orleans as New Orleans, put back houses like those houses that were there, provide for those communities'?

Mr. FRANC: Alex, I don't think that's the right approach. This may be basically an opportunity to reposition the housing stock of New Orleans, hopefully using market forces to help guide that, and not to try to reconstruct, as one of my colleagues describes it, you know, a Colonial Williamsburg-type reproduction of what existed before. That would be foolhardy, especially because a lot of the city is so far under sea level that it just sort of defies common sense.

CHADWICK: Does the president need to say `I'm sorry' in this speech?

Mr. FRANC: A lot of people at a lot of levels, including the president, owe an apology to the way the response went forward. But then there's the 40 years that preceded it. And I think we all owe an apology to the folks in New Orleans and the folks in the neighboring communities for some of the travesties and devastation wrought by federal government policies and state and local government policies for that long period of time.

CHADWICK: Michael Franc, vice president of The Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Michael, thank you.

Mr. FRANC: Thank you, Alex.

CHADWICK: John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for Slate magazine.

John Dickerson, what should the president say in this speech?

JOHN DICKERSON (Slate): It needs to be very specific. One of the problems this president has had is that these speeches get built up a little bit, they promise specifics, and then in the delivery it's a little less than advertised. And I think that certainly those who are still being affected by this horrible disaster are going to want some specifics and know what's coming their way.

CHADWICK: Do they want to hear him say `I'm sorry'? He's already this week said `I'm responsible for whatever the federal government did or didn't do in the days after this storm.' Should he say `I'm sorry'?

DICKERSON: I think yes. And the White House calculation yesterday was he should say he's sorry, take some kind of responsibility so that in the speech he can kind of move past that and get people to focus on what he's actually offering them.

CHADWICK: Writing in Slate magazine online, you have a column saying `Democrats, this is your moment. Don't blow it.' What do you mean? Why is Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath the moment for the Democrats?

DICKERSON: The issues that are now front and center about race and class are ones that Democrats have always traditionally been strong on. They're ones voters tend to trust Democrats about more. But also Democrats believe that if they can articulate a vision for homeland preparedness, well, now the argument can be made by Democrats to the public that's now a little worried about Republican control over that department; Democrats think they have an opportunity.

Here's how they might blow it. Democrats who are trying to offer a kind of programmatic response to both the reconstruction of the Gulf and also questions of homeland preparedness might get drowned out by the sort of more screechy, more partisan comments of some other Democrats.

CHADWICK: Analysis and opinion from John Dickerson. He's chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate.

John, thank you.

DICKERSON: Thank you.

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