Nobody cuts Barack Obama any slack, not even a hurricane. The president was ready to try anything to change the miserable trajectory of his luck. The polls were enough to ruin a week with the elites on Martha’s Vineyard.
Then, on the southern horizon, a floozie named Irene, considerably bigger than a man’s hand and full of promise, swirled into view. Hope and change looked to be arriving just in time.
The president hailed his plane and was off to Washington to take charge of the storm. He shucked his coat, threw away his tie, and sat down in his working-man’s shirtsleeves to preside over the White House command center. Irene would give him a chance to show that he’s not the incompetent nerd everyone is beginning to think he is. He would dispatch the cops, the firetrucks, the rescue squads himself. “All indications point to this being a historic hurricane,” he told the nation. He didn’t have to add, “News at 11, with great visuals.”
He could count on the mainstream media to do the rest, pumping hysteria into the bloodstream of ol’ body politic. Correspondents would take up heroic poses. Dan Rather made his reputation describing a hurricane from the beach, bending horizontally with the wind, and traded a job in Houston for fame and fortune at CBS. Imitators have been trying to follow him in every storm since. One correspondent reported from the surf off the Maryland coast at Ocean City, even swallowing a lot of yellow foam that turned out to be raw sewage. Nobody will get downwind from him for weeks. Opportunity beckoned to all. The Rev. Pat Robertson cried that the storm, following the great Atlantic earthquake of just a few days before, was a sign that we’re “closer to the coming of the Lord.” He urged God to exile Irene to a distant sea.
The New York Times consulted its usual astrologers and it found one to raise the possibility, sort of, that hurricanes are getting worse, and it could be, it might be, global warming’s fault. But if someone actually read the story under the headline Irene was not so much delivering change as peddling hope. “The short answer from scientists,” the account glumly concluded, “is that they are still trying to figure it out.”
Alas, by dawn’s early light the president and his connivers in the media had figured it out. The president knew Katrina, Katrina was a distant acquaintance of his, and Irene was no Katrina. Irene was only the little girl who could have been so bad she was horrid, only she wasn’t. Bad luck continues.
All the president could do on the morning after was to put aside his disappointment and call in someone to share the blame (or assume it all, if he could manage that). Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security and the wicked queen of airports everywhere, piped up with the observation that nobody was yet “out of the woods.” The president agreed there was still wrath to come, when all that rain started tumbling down the creeks and rivers, seeking release in the sea. But the explanations all amounted to thin soup.
In New York, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg got only Bronx cheers with his demand that 375,000 New Yorkers in low-lying areas leave town, Gotham businessmen counted the cost of the four-day shutdown and came up with a tab in the billions. The mayor had even shut down the subways, so at least he could boast that he prevented muggings, rapes and assaults in the trains during the night.
A marketing analyst at America’s Research Group, noting that merchants were counting on the weekend’s receipts to account for 10 percent of back-to-school shopping, called the losses “catastrophic.” Hotels and restaurants were counting on the last weekend of August for billions of dollars of revenue. No one had the numbers for how much of that should be counted against the weather, and how much against the various mongers of fear and hysteria.
Mr. Obama and the mayor and other public officials had a duty to take Irene seriously, and all would have been derelict in duty if they hadn’t. The villains of the piece are first the prediction men, who get easily caught up in the thrill of scaring everybody, and then the television reporters who finally had a story they could understand, since it rains on everybody. But presidents and mayors should remember what happened to the little boy who cried wolf, and make sure that’s really a wolf poised at the edge of the woods.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.