Back in late December economist Paul Krugman posted the above photographs as part of a response to An Oral History of the Bush White House published in Vanity Fair. The Nobel prize winner took issue with the idea that Katrina was the final nail in the coffin, observing that this was the first instance in which the results of consitantly poor policy decisions were visible. The above photos were taken during 9/11 and Katrina respectively, Krugman noting the similarities between the two.
Above are two photos. The second one shows Bush flying over New Orleans; it was widely regarded as a PR disaster, because he seemed so disconnected. But it looks an awful lot like the first photo, of Bush on Air Force One on 9/11. And that photo was considered a wonderful picture of leadership in action — so much so that there was a mini-scandal when the GOP started selling copies of that photo for political fundraising.
In fact, my guess it that the infamous Katrina photo was released precisely because the White House thought everyone would see the parallel, and rally around Bush's wondrous leadership qualities. Hey, it worked on David Broder.
So why didn't it work? I think the answer is simple: in the case of Katrina people could actually see the results of Bush policy. The truth is that Bush did as terrible a job fighting terrorism as he did responding to Katrina — who would have thought that Osama would still be out there, making videos, 7 years later? But on the terrorism front, and even in Iraq, the administration could invent a reality that impressed the public.
I suspect Krugman is right — the photograph was likely released for its similarities to the first — and the reason that image was a disaster was precisely because of the gap of presidential representation and the visual documents of policy failure. To use another photo comparison, while Bush’s gaze looks not nearly as casual as the William Eggleston photograph [posted below], the stillness captured in both is remarkable. But there is no disaster on Eggleston’s horizon, where as with Bush, contrasted with the turmoil below, it’s not too surprising that image was a disaster.