George W Bush is, shall we say, not a fan of Donald Trump. He has publicly slammed the 45th President in the most vivid of terms, accusing the magnate of ‘racism’ and ‘name calling’. But as Trump flew into the eye of the storm yesterday — doing so literally, for once — and the First Lady strapped on her four-inch flood busting stilettos, it was Dubya who had done America’s most volatile leader a great favour.
Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, marked the beginning of the end for George W Bush. His presidency hobbled on for its full term, but the scandal continued to dog him and his reputation remains tarnished to this day. Twelve years on, his humiliation has played into the hands of his nemesis, providing Mr Trump with a kind of anti-playbook for dealing with national disasters. All he has to do is turn in the exact opposite of Dubya’s performance and he’ll be fine. And judging from his approach so far, he seems to know it.
Katrina really was the most almighty balls-up. First off, Mr Bush remained on holiday while the disaster was raging, chalking up 27 days on his Crawford ranch by the time the hurricane hit land. Then, when his aides finally persuaded him to cut his vacation short by two days, he had Air Force One fly over the scenes of devastation rather than get his feet wet. The image of him gazing down at New Orleans from the comfort of his private jet — ‘hovering above the damage’, as he put it in his 2010 memoir — suggested he was ‘detached from the suffering on the ground’. Ruefully, he added: ‘once that impression was formed, I couldn’t change it’.
By contrast, Mr Trump’s response to Tropical Storm Harvey has been downright presidential. The Donald lost no time in making rousing speeches to the nation, emphasising love and solidarity. ‘We see neighbour helping neighbour, friend helping friend and stranger helping stranger,’ he said at a joint news conference with Finland’s president. ‘We are one American family.’
Dubya be praised! For Mr Trump badly needed a good disaster. The last fortnight has been particularly divisive for the White House, even by Trumpian standards. His disturbing response to the Charlottesville violence had opprobrium from across the political spectrum falling on the President’s candyfloss head. This was compounded on Friday when Mr Trump pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a rabidly anti-immigrant cop who used chain gangs and ‘concentration camps’ (his own words) against Latino illegals in Arizona. More bipartisan criticism. A unifying cause was needed.
Yesterday’s presidential visit to the disaster zone showed Mr Trump’s close attention to Dubya’s failings. Planning it was a dilemma. On the one hand, to stay away would have been seen as callous; on the other, back in 2005 President Bush had memorably argued that it would divert vital resources from the rescue effort. Mr Trump lacks many things, but not detractors. Last weekend, seeing him caught between a rock and a hard place, many were sharpening their knives.
But armed with Bush’s anti-playbook, the Donald bamboozled them. Instead of visiting Houston, where two dams are spilling over in an unprecedented crisis, he touched down in Corpus Christi, 200 miles away. Near enough to send a message of solidarity; far enough away to ensure that the rescue operation was not affected. His enemies were left gnashing their teeth.
Stateside, people are saying this disaster will make or break the Trump presidency. Based on the 45th President’s performance so far, his opponents look set to be disappointed. George W Bush will be cross.
Jake Wallis Simons is Associate Global Editor at the Daily Mail Online
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.