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Tsunami Won’t Create Even a Political Ripple for President Bush

If you listened to some of the talking heads or read much of the news coverage of the U.S. government’s reaction to the deadly tsunami in Asia, you might think that President Bush has suffered a political meltdown.

Forget it. He hasn’t. [IMGCAP(1)]

While almost every newspaper article that reports on the U.S. reaction to the tsunami notes “criticism” of the Bush administration’s response, the criticism of the speed and scope of the American response has actually been quite mild. And most of it has come from predictable sources — and hasn’t taken much of a toll on the president’s reputation.

I went back and looked at the coverage of the U.S. response and found only a handful of individuals who openly and on the record bashed the president for an inadequate response to the tragedy.

The toughest criticism may well have come from Rep. Joe Crowley, a four-term Democrat from New York City (who apparently is eager to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee). Only a few days after the tidal wave killed more than 150,000 people in several South Asian countries, The Associated Press reported that Crowley was accusing the administration of being “asleep at the wheel” in its response to the disaster.

One day later, on Dec. 30, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) told reporter Kelly Wallace on CNN’s “Inside Politics” that the United States “gave the really wrong impression to the rest of the world” by announcing that it would spend only $35 million on the relief effort.

“No, it has been a slow response. It has not been the response this country’s capable of. I think a lot of people in that part of the world see it that way,” he added.

“I believe our country will pay a price for the three-day delay in his showing that he really cared about this situation,” agreed Leslie Gelb of the Council of Foreign Relations.

“Crossfire” co-host Paul Begala did his share of Bush bashing, of course, though often merely by raising loaded questions about the U.S. response. But Begala’s job is to be a liberal windbag who makes controversial and even silly remarks, so it’s hard to see his point of view as anything by petty partisanship. He’s not trying to be thoughtful.

Some newspapers also blasted the president. In its final editorial of the year, the Detroit Free Press said that the president “blew an opportunity in his relatively slow response to the disaster.”

The editorial also noted that “the president did not interrupt his holiday break in Texas until Wednesday to speak personally with his counterparts in the stricken nations and pledge more help from America” — a clear shot at Bush.

So where did all of the talk of “criticism” come from? Most of the drumbeat of “criticism” stems from a single individual and a single utterance.

The culprit was United Nations Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland, who had complained shortly after the tsunami that rich countries had been “stingy” in their response to the tragedy.

While Egeland later insisted that he was not singling out any one country or talking about the response to the tsunami, but rather to the countries’ degrees of generosity, his comment attracted plenty of media attention, as well as a response from the president and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

After Egeland’s comment, every newspaper in the country seemed to refer to “critics” of Bush and his administration in its coverage of the tsunami. Yet those reports never identified the critics and never reported on the specific criticism.

On Saturday, the Los Angeles Times referred on page 1 to “criticism” that the United States reacted “with too little and too late.” Later, the article quoted a spokesman at the Council on American-Islamic Relations who was critical of the speed and size of the U.S. response.

The same day, a front-page Washington Post piece referred to “complaints” that the Bush administration “had not acted more quickly and generously,” but it gave no specifics.

On “Good Morning America” on Dec. 31, ABC’s Don Dahler began a report on the U.S. response to the crisis by referring to the administration’s “steps to silence criticism about its reaction to the tsunami tragedy.” Reporter John Yang also talked about “the criticism” — but the piece didn’t include or identify a critic.

Over and over, in virtually every print and TV piece that dealt with the U.S. response to the tsunami, reporters referred to critics or criticism, but rarely named names. It seems clear from the timing and the context, however, that the “criticism” refers to U.N. official Egeland’s comment, which was subsequently qualified.

In fact, there is little or no evidence that most Americans — much less any strong Bush supporters — have become upset with the president or his administration for the speed or the amount of aid promised along the way.

And the talking heads who have criticized Bush probably would have held him responsible for anything they didn’t like, from bad weather (global warming) to the price of tea in China (free trade).

A few months from now, the administration’s response to the tsunami will be ancient history. Other battles, whether in Iraq or over a Supreme Court vacancy, will be front and center in the news media and in the public’s mind.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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