Attn. Republicans in New Orleans: Do You Know Where You Are?

Jun 09, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

An all-star lineup of GOP pols has gathered in New Orleans for the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. But do they have any idea where they are?

Here's what J.C. Watts told the conference-goers:

"Some might think that George W. Bush had his shortcomings," said Watts, "but let me tell you something -- history's going to be kind to George W. Bush."

Just up the street from the GOP's venue at the Hilton Riverside is the New Orleans Convention Center, where tens of thousands of people gathered in the days after Hurricane Katrina and waited in stifling heat without food or water for rescuers who didn't know they were there (even though the flood victims were on TV).

That was probably the low point in a catastrophic breakdown of government capacities at all levels -- local, state, and federal. But the biggest single failure was at the top: George W. Bush was the one man who would have cut through it all. But he was oddly disengaged for the balance of that terrible week. Some of it wasn't his fault. The New Orleans hurricane levee system had never been a national priority, so it's hard to lay their flawed designs on the Bush White House. But the Bush administration made an organizational hash of FEMA and Homeland Security, and, populating offices throughout the federal government with Mike Brown and other political hacks, degraded its capacity to act.

So no, I doubt that history is going to vindicate Bush on this particular point. No amount of retrospective scrubbing can erase the image of that week or the remaining empty stretches of cityscape. It would be helpful -- to them and to the nation -- if the Republican Party acknowledged the reality around them in New Orleans, a city that is coming alive five years after Katrina but still in great peril from hurricanes. The combination of bottom-up civic activity (in the face of fumbling bureaucracies) is something both parties can learn from and put to use. And the challenge of protecting the city -- a partnership between government at all levels and private industry -- is ongoing, and a good template for future challenges in a time of unpleasant environmental surprises.

This post first appeared on my True/Slant blog.