NEW ORLEANS – John McCain directly confronted Thursday what many perceive as one of President Bush’s most monumental failures: the bungled federal government response to Hurricane Katrina.
In doing so, McCain, the not-yet-official Republican presidential nominee, hopes to convince Americans – including blacks, Hispanics and working-class whites – that he doesn’t represent a continuation of the unpopular Bush administration.
“Never again will a disaster of this nature be handled in the terrible and disgraceful way that it was handled,” McCain told the media after taking a four-block walk to survey recovery efforts still under way in New Orleans’ devastated Lower Ninth Ward.
This week, McCain’s ambitious It’s Time for Action Tour took the GOP senator to several locales that not only tend to vote Democratic, such as New Orleans, but also are historically identified with liberal causes.
He started Monday in Selma, Ala., speaking on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the scene of a violent 1965 attack on civil-rights marchers by baton-wielding Alabama police. By Wednesday he was in Inez, Ky., where in 1964 President Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty.
McCain is selling himself to constituencies that traditionally shy away from Republicans. His case is made even tougher following two terms of Bush, whose poll numbers are poor. But even if he doesn’t pick up many local votes, the weeklong tour is designed to send a signal to centrists and independents all over the country.
“I have to convince people that I’m not going to be the president of the Republican Party,” McCain said later Thursday during a town hall meeting at the largely black Xavier University of Louisiana. “I want to be the president of every American whether they vote for me or not.”
The reaction from McCain’s critics has ranged from skepticism to ridicule.
“It’s a tour where he goes to some of the most miserable places in the country as a result of eight years of Bush’s policies and does nothing but sniff around,” said Phil Dynia, chairman of the political science department at Loyola University New Orleans.
Despite Dynia’s cynicism, McCain was warmly received.
“He seems to be a pretty good fella,” said Calvin Young, an 83-year-old Democrat who has lived in the Ninth Ward area for about 60 years. “I can’t say anything bad about him, but I would hope he would try to get the boys home from Iraq as soon as possible.”
McCain, along with wife Cindy and Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, chatted with residents and volunteer workers while walking through the ravaged neighborhood. They had to watch their step to avoid wood, old TV sets, insulation and other debris from gutted houses. The entourage strolled right past legendary New Orleans musician Fats Domino’s rebuilt home.
After the walk, McCain heaped criticism on Bush, the sluggish federal bureaucracy and Congress, which earmarked money for often-trivial pet lawmaker priorities while ignoring critically needed infrastructure improvements. “Unqualified people” headed the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which became symbolic for government ineptitude after its much-criticized response to the storm’s catastrophic flooding, he said.
McCain also vowed to protect New Orleans from future Category 5 hurricanes, no matter how much it costs.
National Democrats were quick to pounce on McCain as they have throughout what they derisively dub his “Inaction Tour.” The Democratic National Committee pointed to various Katrina-related votes, including one McCain cast against creating a congressional commission to investigate the government’s response.