Barbara Bush, the former First Lady who died yesterday at 92, will be remembered for many things: her literacy campaign; her support of people with HIV and AIDS; and her fierce loyalty to her family. Encomiums to Bush have poured in from Democrats and Republicans alike, from President Donald Trump (who said scathing things about her during her lifetime) to Gov. John Bel Edwards, who said in a statement, “She was an incredible first lady who served alongside her husband with class, grace and dignity."
New Orleanians who lived through Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods, however, also remember her much-quoted statement that she made to NPR's Marketplace after touring the Houston Astrodome and meeting with Katrina refugees:
"What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is that they all want to stay in Texas. Everybody is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway so this ... this is working very well for them."
Bush's statement was hardly the least sensitive delivered in those frightening, confusing days. Far worse was that of then-U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colorado,who said
, ""Given the abysmal failure of state and local officials in Louisiana to plan adequately for or respond to the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans, and given the long history of public corruption in Louisiana, I hope the House will refrain from directly appropriating any funds ... to either the state of Louisiana or the city of New Orleans."
[jump] Then there wasHouse Speaker Dennis Hastert
"It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed," he said in an interview with the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill. Asked whether it made sense to spend billions of dollars rebuilding a city that lies below sea level, he told the paper, "I don't know. That doesn't make sense to me."
Hastert later issued a statement saying he was not "advocating that the city be abandoned or relocated." But Louisiana Democrats were incensed. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco demanded an apology. "To kick us when we're down and destroy hope, when hope is the only thing we have left," she said, "is absolutely unthinkable for a leader in his position."
In Syracuse, N.Y., former president Bill Clinton was discussing New Orleans's dilemma when someone described the speaker's comments. Had they been in the same place when the remarks were made, Clinton said, "I'm afraid I would have assaulted him."
(I admit to feeling more than a bit of schadenfreude whenHastert was subsequently convicted in federal court
for structuring bank payments in an attempt to cover up what the judge called "serial child molestation.")
But it seems those comments have faded into history compared to Barbara Bush's offhand observation that New Orleanians who had suffered the worst tragedy of their lives somehow had things "working very well for them."
No one's life should be judged by one moment or one statement, of course. And yet it was that one sentence that has stuck in so many people's craws over the years - including mine. I have no doubt that if Bush had made such a statement in the age of Twitter and Facebook, she would have been pilloried even more than she was at the time. Perhaps she should have been.
Certainly her remark wasn't as egregious as Tancredo's or Hastert's; certainly she wasn't a villain like the hapless FEMA head Michael "Brownie" Brown; certainly she didn't have a responsibility to the city like her son President George W. Bush. But: working out very well for them. It's possible not to hold a grudge and still admit it was a stupid thing to say, something that will be part of her warts-and-all legacy.
Time to forgive and forget? Forgive but never forget? Or neither? I'm not sure. Katrina and the federal floods are still too fresh, and probably always will be.