WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH

The Bush era will be remembered as a time of crisis. Too bad that, in a pinch, the president is such a coward.

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, each time expecting a different result. So, who’s crazier: President Bush or the Democrats? The president’s brand of nuttiness was first glimpsed on September 11 and then crystallized to a fine focus with hurricane Katrina. Bush was entering the fifth and final week of his marathon summer vacation when forecasters predicted the storm would hit New Orleans dead-on as a category five hurricane. The president declared a state of emergency for Louisiana, but then callously continued his vacation, booking trips to Arizona and California even as the storm pummeled New Orleans, trapping tens of thousands of residents without food or water. It wasn’t until Wednesday, August 31—two and a half days after Katrina struck—that Bush finally cut his vacation short by two days and returned to Washington. By that point, New Orleans had already been lost.

During times of national crisis the White House’s motto seems to be: When the going gets tough, the president hides. On September 11, 2001, the president was missing in action for most of the day after the planes struck the World Trade Center and Pentagon, prompting ABC News’s Peter Jennings to inquire where the hell he was: “I don’t mean to say this in melodramatic terms,” Jennings told his audience at 12:30 p.m. eastern time. “Where is the president of the United States? The president of the United States led— I know we don’t know where he is. But pretty soon the country needs to know where he is. And it seems to, I think, me, anyway—I apologize—the president needs to talk to us. He left Florida a couple of hours ago. Our people in Washington are clearly listening and checking this as best they can. But one of the important factors at the moment is that the political leadership in the country be present.”

As it turned out, Bush was hiding at air force bases in Louisiana and Nebraska, claiming the Secret Service wouldn’t let him out. (It’s hard to imagine Clinton or Reagan allowing himself to be corralled that way.) Bush didn’t return to Washington until after 6 p.m.

To the president’s credit, as an equal opportunity coward he is just as quick to avoid foreign crises. Last December, when the Indian Ocean tsunami killed 200,000 people, it was four days before Bush even mentioned the disaster.

But perhaps the most telling incident occurred in May. While the president was enjoying a bike ride in Waldorf, Maryland, a small, unidentified plane was headed for the White House, where Laura Bush was entertaining Nancy Reagan. The Secret Service declared a code red and evacuated the building, rushing the first ladies to a secure location. The situation was deemed so serious that even the Capitol and the Supreme Court building were evacuated. But for the next hour and a half no one mentioned a word to the president, so that he could finish his ride in blissful ignorance. (The plane turned out to be a Cessna that had flown off-course, thanks to the student pilot at its helm.) In the days following Bush did nothing but defend his handlers’ actions.

What makes a man more interested in a bike ride than in the safety of his wife? The same thing that makes him more interested in continuing his vacation than in the loss of a major American city, or that compels him to continue reading a children’s book when his nation suddenly finds itself at war. George Bush is unable to countenance contradiction. He wants nothing to do with anyone or anything that steers him from his chosen path—be that a bicycle path or the path to war. Bush had already set aside last week as vacation time and no stupid hurricane was going to ruin his plans.

Not to be outdone, the Democrats follow their own foolish consistency: a desire so strong to be loved that they refuse to ever challenge their adversaries. When Bush disappeared on September 11, when he ignored the tsunami, and when he continued his vacation while New Orleans washed away, vocal Democratic critics were nonexistent (other than less-than-credible dissenters like Jesse Jackson). Even after the president’s handling of Katrina was roundly criticized by the normally quiescent media—among them conservative stalwarts like the Washington Times and the Manchester Union-Leader—the Democratic leadership refused to criticize the president’s abysmal handling of the crisis.

Some argue that this reticence is wise: The Democrats don’t want to be seen as playing politics with a tragedy, they say. However, as that reasoning has been used to justify Democratic inaction after every scandal, from Bush’s mismanagement of September 11 to his outright abuse of the Terri Schiavo tragedy, the argument seems less like wisdom and more like codependence. At some point the Democrats have to speak up and stand for something, or else they stand for nothing.