The newly opened George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum reshapes the story of Katrina, largely skimming over the Bush administration’s participation in an epic disaster
DALLAS — There was a time when George W. Bush minced no words about the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. He called it “unacceptable.” He fired his point man at FEMA and commissioned an internal review of the failures. A Senate inquiry led by his own party produced a withering critique of federal errors that began even before Katrina made landfall. As Bush wrote in “Decision Points,” his memoir, “the legacy of fall 2005 lingered for the rest of my time in office.”
But as the eighth anniversary of the deadly storm approaches, the newly opened George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum reshapes the story of Katrina, largely skimming over the federal government’s participation in an epic disaster.
The weeklong terrors that killed nearly 1,800 people and left 40,000 marooned for days are portrayed largely as the product of unfortunate geography and natural fury that overwhelmed local officials, much more so than their Federal Emergency Management Agency partners.
Except for a few oblique references, the museum depicts the federal response — although fiercely criticized then and since — largely as one of compassion, rescue and reinvestment.
The exhibit briefly acknowledges that the federal effort was criticized and reforms have been made. And it repeats a Bush acknowledgment, offered during an early post-storm news conference, that, “Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability.”
But it does not elaborate.
“They’re trying to rewrite the history of Katrina as being something that President Bush dealt with properly on his watch,” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, who attended the Bush library’s opening ceremony and whose 2006 book “The Great Deluge” was the first comprehensive history of Katrina. “Yet in presidential history, it’s almost a case study of how not to behave during a national crisis.
“It was a gloss job. He glossed over Katrina.”
Two sides to a story
The museum tells the Katrina story in two parts.
A traditional display of photos and text features a moving picture of Bush, anguished, embracing a woman and daughter several days after the storm.
Maps describe Katrina’s path, its power and New Orleans’ unique geographic vulnerability. An aerial view demonstrates the vastness of the urban floodscape after Katrina breached levees.
Another graphic highlights the $121 billion federal reinvestment in the region.
Except for a picture of exhausted evacuees in the care of rescuers, there are no images of the human suffering or the desperation that marked the first days after the levees breached, shocking the nation and the world.
No filthy Superdome. No mention of the sweaty crowd of 20,000 that waited for five days for rescue at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. No reference to Michael Brown — “Brownie” — the beleaguered director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who resigned under duress just 10 days after Bush infamously complimented him for doing a “heckuva job.”
If the main exhibit largely glosses over the misery, and the federal role in it, disturbing recollections do appear in a complementary interactive exhibit called “Decision Points Theater.”
There, visitors are invited to consider, as Bush did, whether to federalize the entire response.
As museum visitors summon videos of actors to brief them, pro and con, on the prudence of federalization, background videos and narration report escalating civil disorder and increasing suffering in New Orleans.
Bedraggled people wave for help on rooftops, increasing the air of urgency as Bush considers his options.
The context for the mass distress is that it is state and local officials who are overwhelmed, despite the best efforts of FEMA.
However, historians and congressional investigators long ago found that major failures by FEMA, no less than those by city and state officials, helped pitch the city into the most terrible week in its nearly 300-year history.
A Senate investigation later chastised the White House, the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA for poor preparation, execution and leadership.
It found the administration did not appreciate the danger Katrina posed, despite clear warning; lost track of events on the ground as the storm smashed ashore; and did not recognize beforehand that FEMA suffered crippling organizational and leadership issues that would surface in a crisis.
“Katrina began as a human tragedy, but in the weeks after the storm, the fecklessness of the government response became a story unto itself,” according to the Senate report.
The new presidential library and museum is part of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, which also includes the Bush Institute, a think tank.
The 23-acre complex opened in April on the campus of Southern Methodist University.
The $500 million center was built with private funds. The Bush Institute operates on private support, but the $250 million museum, as well as an associated library that stores and processes the archives of the Bush administration, were turned over to the federal government.
They operate on $6 million annually in taxpayer support, according to the Office of Presidential Libraries.
Bush’s is the 13th presidential library, a 20th-century tradition begun by Franklin Roosevelt.
In Dallas, the Bush story has been shaped by the former president, his foundation, which raised the money for the center, and the National Archives and Records Administration, which operates it, said John Orrell, its public affairs and marketing director.
The museum portion of the library tells many stories of the Bush administration: 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, No Child Left Behind, the financial crisis of 2008 and faith-based social services.
“Our big thing is educating. You have eight years of a presidency, and you need to tell the story. And that’s really what we do,” Orrell said.
Asked to discuss the decision-making behind the Katrina exhibit, Orrell referred questions to the Bush Presidential Center, which declined to make a spokesperson available.
At the time of the museum’s opening, however, various spokespersons for the library said the center attempted a conscientious presentation of history.
Brendan Miniter, who managed development of the museum, told the New York Times that Bush wanted the exhibits to avoid editorializing.
‘’We try to let it speak for itself,’’ Miniter said.
Presidential libraries, certainly in their early years, tend to stand as partisan testimonials honoring their sponsoring presidents, according to Benjamin Hufbauer, associate professor of art history at the University of Louisville and author of “Presidential Libraries: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Memory.”
At the Bush library’s dedication ceremonies in April, Bill Clinton drew an awkward chuckle when he wryly welcomed guests to “the latest, grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history.”
Clinton knew. His own library in Little Rock de-emphasized the details of the sex scandal that engulfed his second term. His library titled the exhibit on his impeachment “The Fight for Power,” and included sections called “Politics of Persecution” and “A New Culture of Confrontation.”
Hufbauer said Ronald Reagan’s library opened with no mention whatsoever of the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal that produced more than a dozen indictments of officials in his administration.
“What a president of the U.S. would say is that the museum exists to tell and sell his side of the story as he sees it,” Hufbauer said. “Usually when they open, they’re campaign commercials in museum form. Over time they tend to evolve and get better.”
“Now they essentially get to tell their own stories at our expense.”
As a historian, Brinkley — a former professor at University of New Orleans and Tulane University who now teaches at Rice University — is a self-described “big booster” of presidential libraries, though he recognizes that their approach to history tends to improve with time.
But Brinkley said Bush’s Katrina exhibit fails even by that standard. Katrina was a moment “where you had so many people who died unnecessarily because the Bush White House was asleep at the switch in that all-crucial 48-hour window, when everything mattered with rescue and relief, and there really wasn’t any federal leadership during those first dark days.
“To pass muster, they needed to have at least been a little more candid in that display, even in the realm of having to put your best foot forward,” Brinkley said.
“I would almost rather they had not dealt with it than dealt with it so superficially.”