Bush, Blanco tell different stories on ‘federalization’

While the George W. Bush presidential library tells part of the story of Hurricane Katrina through text and photos, it invests most of its creative energy in a nearby interactive exercise that lets visitors participate in a presidential decision considered in the heat of that terrible week: Should Bush wrest control of the crisis from Gov. Kathleen Blanco?

Visitors summon video briefings, depicting both the pros and cons, by actors who play local, state and federal advisers. Visitors vote yes or no, then Bush appears in a video to explain his decision. (John Orrell, a museum spokesman, said the museum does not keep count of visitors’ decisions in the exercise.)

It’s the same presidential question Bush uses to frame the story of Katrina in his 2010 memoir, “Decision Points.”

Bush concludes that delaying the dispatch of federal troops for three days while negotiating with Blanco was his greatest management misstep during the Katrina crisis.

But eight years after the storm, Bush and Blanco still tell different stories about their standoff over “federalization.”

While it seems central to Bush’s telling of his Katrina experience, Blanco said in a recent interview that she regards it as an “afterthought” in the context of that first brutal week.

And despite the prominence he gives the story at his museum, Bush acknowledges in his memoir that it turned out federalization wasn’t needed.

The reasons: Reports of civil disturbance in chaotic New Orleans, though real, were wildly overblown. And Lt. Gen. Russell Honoré, heading Bush’s active duty troops, proved to be a forceful and skillful commander.

“Had I known he could be so effective without the authority I assumed he needed, I would’ve have cut off the legal debate and sent troops in without law enforcement powers several days sooner,” Bush wrote.

Early in the week, with the city nearly helpless, Blanco asked Bush for 40,000 active-duty troops.

Blanco’s request triggered an internal White House debate, according to the Bush memoir: Given reports of rampant lawlessness in New Orleans and the paralysis that seemed to grip Blanco, her National Guard and local police, should Bush take over the command of all state-sponsored National Guard troops, with their police power, and should he deputize additional active duty troops?

Federal law forbids using federal military force against civilians unless the president unilaterally invokes the 1807 Insurrection Act — or the local governor invites the president to do so.

Blanco said that over the next three days she rebuffed several White House prompts that she invite Bush to deputize active-duty troops and let him take over the National Guard.

Bush said he hesitated to act without her assent: “The world would see a male Republican president usurping the authority of a female Democratic governor by declaring an insurrection in a largely African-American city,” he wrote in his memoir.

Blanco said the White House never told her that active-duty troops would come more quickly if she let Bush federalize the effort. And she said she never understood his delay.

On Thursday, Day Four, Blanco said she asked Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, head of the Pentagon’s National Guard Bureau, whether federal assistance was contingent on federalizing the Guard. “He said, ‘Absolutely not,’ ” Blanco recalled. “I can’t tell you how adamant he was.”

Meanwhile, through another military channel, 33,000 National Guard troops were converging on New Orleans from neighboring states. They would serve under Blanco and her National Guard chief, Maj. Gen. Bennett Landreneau.

With their police power, “we knew that with the National Guard we had all the law enforcement capacity we needed,” Blanco said.

The Bush-Blanco confrontation came to a head in a tense private Friday meeting on Air Force One, parked on the tarmac at New Orleans International Airport. “You need to authorize the federal government to take over the response,” Bush said he told Blanco.

Blanco demurred for the moment, then turned him down definitively the next day.

That was Saturday, Sept. 3, Day Five. So Bush ordered 7,000 to 8,000 federal troops into the city to provide search and rescue, logistical and humanitarian support — without law enforcement capability.

But by then, National Guard troops had almost wrapped up the evacuation of 40,000 ragged people from the Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, shepherding them onto buses finally provided by FEMA. That ended the most acute crisis.

Blanco said that from that perspective, Bush’s decision to activate federal troops late in the week “is an afterthought, really.”

Blanco has said several times she does not understand why she could not persuade Bush that she had enough National Guard troops inbound to restore order.

“If I had fully understood what they were looking for, you know, I thought I was communicating appropriately. I thought I was communicating clearly.”

She said they might have connected better had they met face-to-face earlier in the week.

On Wednesday, Bush cut short a Texas vacation and returned to Washington, flying over the storm zone in Air Force One without landing.

In “Decision Points” he wrote that Blanco and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told the White House it was too soon for a disruptive presidential visit.

Blanco said she does not think that happened.

“I don’t think I would have ever said to the president not to come in,” she said.

“I didn’t wave him off.”