Monday, January 25, 2010

The Politics of Disaster

Even to a hardened soul who has spent most of his life reporting the news - much of it bad - this week was particularly dark.

The news from Haiti was gut wrenching, tens of thousands dead, an entire nation displaced, in an earthquake that devastated a people who must surely believe they have been put on earth to suffer.

And those who dwell in our hillsides and canyons, survivors of what seemed to be a never-ending firestorm this summer, now are lashed by rain so severe that it threatened to bury their neighborhoods in a tsunami of mud.

Yet in the midst of this gloom, there was a beam of light. And it came from an unexpected source.

Former President George W. Bush, a man who spent eight years squandering the respect of his nation, appeared at a White House Press Conference this past week, along with former President Bill Clinton and President Obama, to raise money for Haitian earthquake victims.

If there was ever a time to push politics aside, this was it. And President Bush did just that, praising President Obama's swift and timely response to the disaster.

In doing so, he appeared poised and presidential, regaining a measure of stature in the eyes of the American people while distancing himself from the extreme wing of the Republican party.

More than that, Bush's gesture was a sign of national unity, something we haven't seen since Obama took office.

There was irony that Bush was there in the aftermathof a catastrophic emergency. He had fumbled the Katrina disaster. Obama was no doubt mindful of that as he formulated a decisive reaction to the Haitian crisis.

But that backstory wasn't in evidence this week. "Now's not the time to focus on politics. It's time to focus on helping people," Bush said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

Clinton agreed. "When people see us together - look, they know we have differences, even though we're friends," he said on CNN. "The only political thing I hope that comes out of this is that people keep their differences of conviction, but they treat their neighbors as friends."

Unfortunately, not everyone could resist turning the Haitian crisis into a political football.

The inevitable Rush Limbaugh, for example, said that the disaster enables Mr. Obama to highlight his "compassionate" and "humanitarian" credentials and to "boost his credibility with the black community."

He also criticized the White House's promotion of charitable organizations through which people can contribute to the disaster relief. "We've already donated to Haiti," he said. "It's called the U.S. income tax."

Further, Limbaugh continued, "I do believe that everything is political to this president. Everything this president sees is a political opportunity, including Haiti, and he will use it to burnish his credentials with minorities in this country and around the world, and to accuse Republicans of having no compassion."

Glenn Beck, in a burst of verbal tossed salad that was as hard to understand as it was to imagine, criticized President Obama for reacting more quickly to Haiti than he did to Afghanistan and the the Fort Hood shootings. In fact, he pointed to this as example of how Obama is further dividing the country.

In the meantime, Ann Coulter took the White House press conference as an opportunity to tee off on President Clinton, calling him a "horny hick" and referring to his involvement in an attempt to help the millions suffering in Haiti as a "shame and embarrassment."

Then there was Pat Robertson, everybody's favorite purveyor of that Old Time Religion, who declared: "Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it," he said. "They were under the heel of the French ... and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, `We will serve you if you'll get us free from the French."'

It is almost beyond comprehension that each of these people, who have enjoyed a measure of success in their chosen professions, have somehow in the process lost their compassion and sense of sorrow for the plight of their fellow man.

It is incomprehensible that they would view the horrors in Haiti and not, at the very least, be moved to throttle back on the rhetoric until the bodies are buried.

It is incomprehensible that they would in the future be viewed as any more than they are: heartless messengers of fear and cynicism whose agenda is shameless self promotion.

They would be better served by living by the words of the American patriot and Founding Father Thomas Paine who said, "My country is the world, and my religion is to do good."

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