Tough talk: Sen. John Kerry delivered the following address at Brown University yesterday. It’s long, but it’s well worth reading. One wonders if Kerry could have communicated this level of passion and tough-talking rhetoric during the campaign, if he would have been the one to deal with Katrina — and wonder how well he would have done.
I want to thank you for what the Brown community has done to help and comfort the many victims of Hurricane Katrina. This horrifying disaster has shown Americans at their best — and their government at its worst.
And that’s what I’ve come to talk with you about today. The incompetence of Katrina’s response is not reserved to a hurricane. There’s an enormous gap between Americans’ daily expectations and government’s daily performance. And the gap is growing between the enduring strength of the American people — their values, their spirit, their imagination, their ingenuity, and their willingness to serve and sacrifice — and the shocking weakness of the American government in contending with our country’s urgent challenges. On the Gulf Coast during the last two weeks, the depth and breadth of that gap has been exposed for all to see and we have to address it now before it’s obscured again by hurricane force spin and deception.
Katrina stripped away any image of competence and exposed to all the true heart and nature of this administration. The truth is that for four and a half years, real life choices have been replaced by ideological agenda, substance replaced by spin, governance second place always to politics. Yes, they can run a good campaign — I can attest to that — but America needs more than a campaign. If 12 year-old Boy Scouts can be prepared, Americans have a right to expect the same from their 59 year-old President of the United States.
Katrina reminds us that too often the political contests of our time have been described like football games with color commentary: one team of consultants against another, red states against blue states, Democratic money against Republican money; a contest of height versus hair – sometimes. But the truth is democracy is not a game; we are living precious time each day in a different America than the one we can inhabit if we make different choices.
Today, more than ever, when the path taken last year and four years earlier takes us into a wilderness of missed opportunities — we need to keep defining the critical choices over and over, offering a direction not taken but still open in the future.
I know the President went on national television last week and accepted responsibility for Washington’s poor response to Katrina. That’s admirable. And it’s a first. As they say, the first step towards recovery is to get out of denial. But don’t hold your breath hoping acceptance of responsibility will become a habit for this administration. On the other hand, if they are up to another “accountability moment” they ought to start by admitting one or two of the countless mistakes in conceiving, “selling”, planning and executing their war of choice in Iraq.
I obviously don’t expect that to happen. And indeed, there’s every reason to believe the President finally acted on Katrina and admitted a mistake only because he was held accountable by the press, cornered by events, and compelled by the outrage of the American people, who with their own eyes could see a failure of leadership and its consequences.
Natural and human calamity stripped away the spin machine, creating a rare accountability moment, not just for the Bush administration, but for all of us to take stock of the direction of our country and do what we can to reverse it. That’s our job — to turn this moment from a frenzied expression of guilt into a national reversal of direction. Some try to minimize the moment by labeling it a “blame game” — but as I’ve said – this is no game and what is at stake is much larger than the incompetent and negligent response to Katrina.
This is about the broader pattern of incompetence and negligence that Katrina exposed, and beyond that, a truly systemic effort to distort and disable the people’s government, and devote it instead to the interests of the privileged and the powerful. It is about the betrayal of trust and abuse of power. And in all the often horrible and sometimes ennobling sights and sounds we’ve all witnessed over the last two weeks, there’s another sound just under the surface: the steady clucking of Administration chickens coming home to roost.
We wouldn’t be hearing that sound if the people in Washington running our government had cared to listen in the past.
They didn’t listen to the Army Corps of Engineers when they insisted the levees be reinforced.
They didn’t listen to the countless experts who warned this exact disaster scenario would happen.
They didn’t listen to years of urgent pleading by Louisianans about the consequences of wetlands erosion in the region, which exposed New Orleans and surrounding parishes to ever-greater wind damage and flooding in a hurricane.
They didn’t listen when a disaster simulation just last year showed that hundreds of thousands of people would be trapped and have no way to evacuate New Orleans.
They didn’t listen to those of us who have long argued that our insane dependence on oil as our principle energy source, and our refusal to invest in more efficient engines, left us one big supply disruption away from skyrocketing gas prices that would ravage family pocketbooks, stall our economy, bankrupt airlines, and leave us even more dependent on foreign countries with deep pockets of petroleum.
They didn’t listen when Katrina approached the Gulf and every newspaper in America warned this could be “The Big One” that Louisianans had long dreaded. They didn’t even abandon their vacations.
For an Administration that wants to teach intelligent design in our schools, maybe they should start by getting a little intelligent design at FEMA.
And the rush now to camouflage their misjudgments and inaction with money doesn’t mean they are suddenly listening. It’s still politics as usual. The plan they’re designing for the Gulf Coast turns the region into a vast laboratory for right wing ideological experiments. They’re already talking about private school vouchers, abandonment of environmental regulations, abolition of wage standards, subsidies for big industries – and believe it or not yet another big round of tax cuts for the wealthiest among us!
The administration is recycling all their failed policies and shipping them to Louisiana. After four years of ideological excess, these Washington Republicans have a bad hangover — and they can’t think of anything to offer the Gulf Coast but the hair of the dog that bit them.
And amazingly — or perhaps not given who we’re dealing with — this massive reconstruction project will be overseen not by a team of experienced city planners or developers, but according to the New York Times, by the Chief of Politics in the White House and Republican Party, none other than Karl Rove — barring of course that he is indicted for “outing” an undercover CIA intelligence officer.
Katrina is a symbol of all this administration does and doesn’t do. Michael Brown — or Brownie as the President so famously thanked him for doing a heck of a job – Brownie is to Katrina what Paul Bremer is to peace in Iraq; what George Tenet is to slam dunk intelligence; what Paul Wolfowitz is to parades paved with flowers in Baghdad; what Dick Cheney is to visionary energy policy; what Donald Rumsfeld is to basic war planning; what Tom Delay is to ethics; and what George Bush is to “Mission Accomplished” and “Wanted Dead or Alive.” The bottom line is simple: The “we’ll do whatever it takes” administration doesn’t have what it takes to get the job done.
This is the Katrina administration.
It has consistently squandered time, tax dollars, political capital, and even risked American lives on sideshow adventures: A war of choice in Iraq against someone who had nothing to do with 9/11; a full scale presidential assault on Social Security when everyone knows the real crisis is in health care – Medicare and Medicaid. And that’s before you even get to willful denial on global warming; avoidance on competitiveness; complicity in the loss and refusal of health care to millions.
Americans can and will help compensate for government’s incompetence with millions of acts of individual enterprise and charity, as Katrina has shown. But that’s not enough. We must ask tough questions: Will this generosity and compassion last in the absence of strong leadership? Will this Administration only ask for sacrifice in a time of crisis? Has dishonesty in politics degraded our national character to the point that we feel our dues have been paid as citizens with a one-time donation to the Red Cross?
Today, let’s you and I acknowledge what’s really going on in this country. The truth is that this week, as a result of Katrina, many children languishing in shelters are getting vaccinations for the first time. Thousands of adults are seeing a doctor after going without a check-up for years. Illnesses lingering long before Katrina will be treated by a healthcare system that just weeks ago was indifferent, and will soon be indifferent again.
For the rest of the year this nation silently tolerates the injustice of 11 million children and over 30 million adults in desperate need of healthcare. We tolerate a chasm of race and class some would rather pretend does not exist. And ironically, right in the middle of this crisis the Administration quietly admitted that since they took office, six million of our fellow citizens have fallen into poverty. That’s over five times the evacuated population of New Orleans. Their plight is no less tragic – no less worthy of our compassion and attention. We must demand something simple and humane: healthcare for all those in need – in all years at all times.
This is the real test of Katrina. Will we be satisfied to only do the immediate: care for the victims and rebuild the city? Or will we be inspired to tackle the incompetence that left us so unprepared, and the societal injustice that left so many of the least fortunate waiting and praying on those rooftops?
That’s the unmet challenge we have to face together. Katrina is the background of a new picture we must paint of America. For five years our nation’s leaders have painted a picture of America where ignoring the poor has no consequences; no nations are catching up to us; and no pensions are destroyed. Every criticism is rendered unpatriotic. And if you say “War on Terror” enough times, Katrina never happens.
Well, Katrina did happen, and it washed away that coat of paint and revealed the true canvas of America with all its imperfections. Now, we must stop this Administration from again whitewashing the true state of our challenges. We have to paint our own picture – an honest picture with all the optimism we deserve – one that gives people a vision where no one is excluded or ignored. Where leaders are honest about the challenges we face as a nation, and never reserve compassion only for disasters.
Rarely has there been a moment more urgent for Americans to step up and define ourselves again. On the line is a fundamental choice. A choice between a view that says “you’re on your own,” “go it alone,” or “every man for himself.” Or a different view – a different philosophy – a different conviction of governance – a belief that says our great American challenge is one of shared endeavor and shared sacrifice.
Over the next weeks I will address these choices in detail – choices about national security, the war in Iraq, making our nation more competitive and committing to energy independence. But it boils down to this. I still believe America’s destiny is to become a living testament to what free human beings can accomplish by acting in unity. That’s easy to dismiss by those who seem to have forgotten we can do more together than just waging war.
But for those who still believe in the great tradition of Americans doing great things together, it’s time we started acting like it. We can never compete with the go-it-alone crowd in appeals to selfishness. We can’t afford to be pale imitations of the other side in playing the ‘what’s in it for me’ game. One thing we know: the last thing America needs is a second Republican Party.
Instead, it’s time we put our appeals where our hearts are – asking the American people to make our country as strong, prosperous, and big-hearted as we know we can be – every day. It’s time we framed every question – every issue — not in terms of what’s in it for ‘me,’ but what’s in it for all of us?
And when you ask that simple question – what’s in it for all of us? – the direction not taken in America could not be more clear or compelling.
Instead of allowing a few oil companies to drill their way to windfall profits, it means an America that understands we can’t drill our way to energy independence, we have to invent our way there together.
Instead of making a mockery of the words No Child Left Behind when China and India are graduating tens of thousands more engineers and PhDs than we are, it means an America where college education is affordable and accessible for every child willing to work for it.
Instead of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, it means an America that makes smart investments in your future like funding the science and research and development that will assure American technological leadership.
Instead of allowing lobbyists to rewrite our environmental laws to take us backwards, it means an America where lakes and rivers and streams are clean enough that when a family takes the kids fishing, it’s actually safe to eat the fish they catch.
Instead of letting a few ideologues get in the way of progress that can make us a stronger and healthier society, it means an America where the biology students here today will do the groundbreaking stem cell research tomorrow.
And instead of stubbornly disregarding intelligence, using force prematurely and shoving our allies aside, it means an America that restores its leadership in the world. An America that meets its responsibility of creating a world where the plagues of our time and future times – from terror to disease to poverty to weapons of mass destruction to the unknown – are overcome by allies united in common cause, and proud to follow American leadership.
That is the direction not taken but still open to us in the future if we answer that simple question – ‘what’s in it for all of us?’ It comes down to the fact that the job of government is to prepare for your future – not ignore it. It should prepare to solve problems – not create them.
This Administration and the Republicans who control Congress give in to special interests and rob future generations. Real leadership stands up to special interests and sets the course for future generations. And unless we change course now, my generation risks failing its obligation of assuring you inherit a safer, stronger America. To turn this around, the greatest challenges must be the starting point. I hope Katrina gives us the courage to face them and the sense of urgency to beat them.
That’s why the next few months are such a critical time. You’ll read about the Katrina investigations and fact-finding missions. You’ll get constant updates on the progress rebuilding New Orleans and new funding for FEMA. Washington becomes a very efficient town once voters start paying attention.
But we can’t let political maneuvering around the current crisis distract people from the gathering, hidden crises that present the greatest threats to our nation’s competitiveness and character. The effort to rebuild New Orleans cannot obscure the need to also rebuild our country.
So realistically, I’m sure you’re wondering: How do I change all this? What can I do? The answer is simple: you have to make your issues the voting issues of this nation. You’re not the first generation to face this challenge.
I remember when you couldn’t even mention environmental issues without a snicker. But then in the 70’s people got tired of seeing the Cuyahoga River catch on fire from all the chemicals. So one day millions of Americans marched. Politicians had no choice but to take notice. Twelve Congressman were dubbed the Dirty Dozen, and soon after seven were kicked out of office. The floodgates were opened. We got the Clean Air Act, The Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water. We created the EPA. The quality of life improved because concerned citizens made their issues matter in elections.
You have the chance to do that now. Moments like Katrina are difficult – but they help you define your service to your fellow citizens. I’ll never forget as a teenager standing in a field in October of 1957 watching the first man made spacecraft streak across the night sky. The conquest, of course, was Soviet – and while not everyone got to see the unmanned craft pass overhead at 18,000 miles per hour that night – before long every American knew the name Sputnik. We knew we had been caught unprepared.
In the uncertain years thereafter, President Kennedy challenged Americans to act on that instinct. He said, “This is a great country, but I think it could be a greater country…the question we have to decide as Americans,” he said, is “are we doing enough today?”
Today, every American knows the name Katrina — and once again we know our government was undeniably unprepared, even as Americans have shown their willingness to sacrifice to make up for it.
But in these uncertain weeks of Katrina’s aftermath, we must ask ourselves not just whether a great country can be made greater — the sacrifice and generosity of Americans these last weeks answered that question with a resounding yes.
No, our challenge is greater. It’s to speak out so loudly that Washington has no choice but to make choices worthy of this great country – choices worthy of the sacrifice of our neighbors in the Gulf Coast and our troops all around the world.
What’s in it for all of us? Nothing less than the character of our country – and your future.