ON SEPTEMBER 10, 1965, one day after Hurricane Betsy struck the Gulf Coast, causing widespread flooding, President Lyndon B. Johnson flew to New Orleans on Air Force One with Louisiana’s three most powerful politicians—Representative Hale Boggs and Senators Russell Long and Allen Ellender—as well as with the secretary of agriculture, the surgeon general, and the director of the Office of Emergency Planning.
“I am here because I want to see with my own eyes what the unhappy alliance of wind and water have done to this land and people,” Johnson, speaking without a microphone, told a small crowd that had gathered to meet him at the airport. “You can be sure that the Federal Government’s total resources will be tuned to Louisiana to help this state and its citizens find its way back from this tragedy.” The next day, the mayor of New Orleans received a sixteen-page telegram from the president describing his plans for aiding the city.
Lyndon Johnson’s response to Hurricane Betsy, the subject on September 11, 1965, of two New York Times stories and more recently the focus of a “Letter from Louisiana” in the New Yorker by its editor, David Remnick, and a New York Times op-ed by NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, is still seen by many as the best historical example of how the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina should be judged. It is a comforting thought for Bush critics. But there is another historical example, more in tune with the current political atmosphere, that we also need to consider. It is the reaction of Calvin Coolidge’s administration to the great Mississippi River flood of 1927.
In contrast to Johnson, with his commitment to such liberal Great Society programs as Medicare and Medicaid, Coolidge, like George W. Bush, was from the start bent on running an administration that cut taxes and domestic spending. Coolidge’s response to the Mississippi River flood of 1927 was to hold tightly to his conservative principles. As president, he never visited any of the flooded cities and towns along the Mississippi, despite pleas to do so, and although in 1927 the Treasury finished the year with a record surplus of $635 million, under Coolidge’s orders, the federal government did nothing to pay for flood victims’ relief. It was the Red Cross that spent nearly $17 million to rescue, shelter, and feed an estimated seven hundred thousand people uprooted by the Mississippi’s flooding.
Yet in 1928, the Republicans handily won the presidential election, continuing the political dominance they had enjoyed since the end of the Wilson administration. Coolidge and his party paid no penalty for the callousness they showed the Mississippi River’s flood victims. Instead, in Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who headed a special committee of five cabinet secretaries appointed by Coolidge to deal with the Mississippi flood, the Republicans produced ...
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