- The Washington Times - Friday, September 16, 2005

President Bush, addressing a national prayer service yesterday at the National Cathedral, declared that persistent poverty caused by past racial injustice in the South must be swept away when the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast is rebuilt.

“Americans of every race and religion were touched by this storm; yet some of the greatest hardship fell upon citizens already facing lives of struggle — the elderly, the vulnerable and the poor,” the president said. “And this poverty has roots in generations of segregation and discrimination that closed many doors of opportunity.

“As we clear away the debris of a hurricane, let us also clear away the legacy of inequality. Let us deliver new hope to communities that were suffering before the storm,” he said during a ceremony to pray for the survivors of Hurricane Katrina as well as the more than 700 dead.

The president’s call for a campaign of conscience to right old wrongs echoed the one he made Thursday night in his address to the nation from New Orleans, when he noted that Americans had seen images on television that illustrated the abject poverty some still live in.

“We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action,” he said in the earlier speech.

The president’s comments on race set up an interesting struggle between the two political parties. Democrats point to the pictures of poor blacks stranded in New Orleans without food and water as proof that the “compassionate conservatism” of the Bush administration is a fraud or a failure.

Republicans in the White House, however, say the fact that one in five residents of the states hardest hit by Katrina — Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama — live below the poverty level proves that traditional government programs of handouts for the poor do not work.

Mr. Bush “exceeded expectations in mentioning that poverty and class were at the heart of what Americans were seeing on their TVs,” said Ron Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland and director of the African American Leadership Institute.

“It creates a moral basis for launching a credible program for making restitution to victims,” Mr. Walters said. “Whether he will be able to fulfill what he promised will depend on the Republican Party. They are still in the cross hairs.”

Before Mr. Bush’s remarks yesterday, Bishop T.D. Jakes, head of the 30,000-member Potter’s House church in Dallas, delivered a powerful sermon based on the parable of the good Samaritan. He called upon Americans to “dare to discuss the unmentionable issues that confront us” and to not rest until the poor are raised to an acceptable living standard.

“Katrina, perhaps she has done something to this nation that needed to be done,” Bishop Jakes said. “We can no longer be a nation that overlooks the poor and the suffering, that continues past the ghetto on our way to the Mardi Gras.”

Democrats yesterday cautiously endorsed Mr. Bush’s call, but some said the devil is in the details.

“The acknowledgment … is a constructive start, but it is only a constructive start,” said Rep. Melvin Watt, North Carolina Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “I suppose what happens after that is the question.”

Mr. Watt said Mr. Bush offered hope, but not any concrete way for poor families to take advantage of opportunities. He said families that lack money for a down payment, for example, won’t be able to take advantage of the president’s call for more home ownership.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat and a senior black lawmaker, said so far Mr. Bush’s actions, such as suspending the Davis-Bacon rules on federal contracts paying prevailing wages, don’t make a good start.

“If at the end of this, the only beneficiaries are contractors and developers, then an opportunity would have been lost,” Mr. Rangel said. “But if America’s poor are lifted up in spirit and in reality, with education, jobs and good housing, then we would have really made a difference.”

On Thursday, Mr. Bush proposed three initiatives to target the plight of the poor, predominantly black, in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast.

Claude Allen, the president’s domestic policy adviser, said two of the main storm-relief proposals were aimed directly at addressing the region’s poverty: $5,000 grants for worker training, education and child care; and an Urban Homesteading Act under which surplus federal property would be turned over to low-income citizens to build homes.

“As we rebuild homes and businesses, we will renew our promise as a land of equality and decency,” Mr. Bush said yesterday. “And one day, Americans will look back at the response to Hurricane Katrina and say that our country grew not only in prosperity, but in character and justice.”

Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish near New Orleans, said he was happy with Mr. Bush’s speech Thursday night.

“Mainly he gave hope,” Mr. Broussard told CBS’ “The Early Show,” “and right now in this area people need hope more than anything.”

Yesterday, several dozen evacuees and first responders, all from New Orleans, joined Mr. Bush, first lady Laura Bush and hundreds of guests for the ceremony that was part of what the president declared to be a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance.

Also in attendance were Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.

“Many did not survive the fury of the storm,” Mr. Bush said early in his address. “Many who did ask, why — and wonder what comes next. In this hour of suffering, we’re prayerful. In a wounded region, so many placed their faith in a God who hears and helps. And so many are bringing their grief to a Savior acquainted with grief.”

Stephen Dinan contributed to this article.

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