Kerry criticizes Bush response to Katrina

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The government’s incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina is an indicator of a much bigger problem in the country, Sen. John Kerry P’97, D-Mass., told an audience gathered in Salomon 101 on Monday afternoon. Kerry, the third speaker in the Governor Frank Licht ’38 Lecture Series, highlighted the opportunity in Katrina’s aftermath for Americans to redefine themselves and be honest about the challenges they face as a nation.

Kerry, whose wife, Theresa Heinz Kerry, and daughter, Vanessa Kerry, were present, was introduced by Darrell West, professor of political science and director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy, and greeted with a standing ovation in a filled-to-capacity auditorium.

Kerry opened his speech by talking about how the natural and human calamity of Katrina “stripped away the spin machine,” forcing President George W. Bush to admit that he had made a mistake only after he had been cornered by press coverage and national outrage.

“Some try to minimize the moment by labeling it a ‘blame game,'” Kerry said. “But this is no game, and what is at stake is much larger than the incompetent and negligent response to Katrina,” he said.

Kerry said this rare moment of accountability should apply not only to the president, but to all Americans.

“That’s our job – to turn this moment from a frenzied expression of guilt into a national reversal of direction,” Kerry said. “The effort to rebuild New Orleans cannot obscure the need to also rebuild our country.”

Though relief efforts are much more thoroughly underway now, Kerry warned that they are “still politics as usual,” noting that the plan being designed for the Gulf Coast will turn the region into a “vast laboratory for right-wing ideological experiments” including school vouchers, abolition of wage standards, subsidies for big industries and tax cuts for the wealthiest people in the country.

He emphasized that although many children in shelters are getting vaccinations and health care for the first time as a result of Katrina, the aid from hurricane relief funds is not enough for the millions of Americans who needed health care before Katrina and will continue to need it after relief efforts subside.

“We can never – and we should never – compete with the go-it-alone crowd in appeals to selfishness,” Kerry said. “It’s time we framed every question not in terms of what’s in it for me, but what’s in it for all of us?”

He hearkened back to the passage of numerous environmental protection acts in the 1970s, noting that until Americans mobilized and marched by the millions to get politicians’ attention, the only response an environmental issue could hope to get in Congress was a snicker.

“I’m sure you’re wondering: How do I change all this? What can I do?” Kerry addressed students. “The answer is simple: You have to make your issues the voting issues of this nation,” he said.

The particulars of achieving that charge were one of the first queries posed in a question and answer session that took place immediately following Kerry’s speech. He said that local elections are the best place to start.

“I’ve sat where you sit, and I know that feeling when somebody comes and they speak to you and tell you to do this and that and you sort of roll your eyes,” Kerry said. “And it’s hard to fight back against. But here’s the bottom line: The civil rights movement got its energy out of young people who were willing to go out and take risks. Those were college kids down there in Alabama and Mississippi.”

He continued: “I’m convinced the single most effective, fastest way to make changes in this country is to go out and organize for elections – take over a city council, take over a school board. Become involved in those campaigns. And if you do that – if you go door-to-door, talk to people and organize local populations, people get the facts. One of the biggest single challenges in America today is getting the vast majority of Americans the truth.”

When asked about the future of “a woman’s right to choose,” Kerry said that he doesn’t know what to expect.

“I can’t tell you what John Roberts is going to do. … I don’t think the folks on the other side of the fence could tell you, either,” he said. “Now maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be, but I don’t think so.”

He expressed disappointment that in all of the presidential debates just two minutes were devoted to the topic and said that he thinks the nationwide discussion about abortion needs to become broader and more intelligent, even if it means talking about things that make some people uncomfortable.

“We (should) talk more openly and honestly about the moral quandary of the choice,” Kerry said. “It doesn’t belong to the government. It’s between a woman, her doctor and God, and that’s where it should stay.”

Kerry declined to reflect back on his 2004 campaign for the presidency, saying only that certain decisions could have been made that might have changed the course of his past presidential run and that he took responsibility for those decisions. He has not decided if he will run for office in 2008, saying instead that he is focusing for now on elections taking place in 2006.

“What Americans want is so simple,” Kerry said. “They want the truth. They want us to get this ideological rigidity out of politics, and start operating with some common sense.”

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