WASHINGTON — Seeking to extricate himself from turmoil surrounding relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, President Bush defended the federal response to the massive storm damage on Friday and declared that he would send more help if needed.
"We will commit all federal military resources necessary to help the people in Florida," he said at a hastily called meeting with reporters in the White House Rose Garden.
For Bush, who had intended to go to his seaside home in Maine this weekend for a break from campaigning, the hurricane and the potential political fallout left him scrambling to demonstrate he is on top of a domestic issue that has seized the nation's attention.
The growing dispute also caused gnashing of teeth at campaign headquarters and complaints at the White House about public perceptions that the federal government had not met a heart-rending need as state, local and private agencies failed to get an effective relief program under way.
Natural disasters present political leaders with opportunities to demonstrate concern and marshal resources to assist stricken residents in ways that campaign challengers cannot. But those opportunities come with potential traps: Failure to take a leadership role in providing relief can suggest an official is unconcerned or ineffective in the face of human suffering.
On Monday, Bush dashed to Florida, cutting short a campaign visit to Connecticut. He made a quick tour of the devastation and, in time for television news broadcasts, read a message of concern from note cards hastily prepared by aides. He made a similar trip to Louisiana on Wednesday.
But by the end of the week, despite his efforts, complaints were being voiced in Florida.
Bush, who was criticized two years ago for vacationing while dispatching troops to the Persian Gulf following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, canceled a weekend visit to his home in Kennebunkport, Me., and met with Pentagon officials to review their disaster assistance. He then headed for Camp David, Md., with plans to return to the White House today for another meeting--and possibly a public report updating the federal effort.
Speaking with reporters, Bush said he would not take part "in the blame game."
"I am satisfied that we responded properly, and I am very confident that the military have conducted their mission so far with beautiful planning and now excellent execution," he said.
White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said the formal request for assistance from the military had not arrived from Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles until 1:45 p.m. Thursday, and that some earlier offers to provide aid--including an active-duty battalion on Monday--were turned down.
He said Bush had canceled his Kennebunkport trip, as well as a campaign visit Monday and Tuesday to Washington state, Oregon and California, to be able to monitor the disaster relief program "because it's the biggest disaster in the history of the country, (and) problems are developing that we didn't anticipate."
"Florida is wiped out totally," Fitzwater said.
Asked why the President found himself on the defensive over the federal response, Fitzwater replied: "It's an election year."
But others suggested the President is "snake bit" in his efforts to demonstrate concern in the face of such disasters. At the White House and in the Bush-Quayle campaign, there is a feeling that Bush has paid a price for heading quickly to Florida on Monday before a formal federal response to the disaster could be drawn up--but also before Democratic challenger Bill Clinton could get there. Clinton has not visited the state since the hurricane hit.
The price was that Bush's visit suggested a quick and complete program of assistance from Washington, and when it had not arrived on a large scale by Thursday, officials in Florida began pointing fingers angrily at the President.
The turn of events complicated the political picture for the Bush reelection team in Florida, where he is considered the favorite to win the state's 25 electoral votes.
Bush on Friday touted the extent of the federal effort, rattling off a list of numbers: 400,000 meals from the Pentagon available over three days, 50,000 Army blankets, 100,000 food packages from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"And I'm willing to send more federal troops and federalize the National Guard in Florida" if such steps are sought by Chiles, he said.
The President tossed aside the angry complaint Thursday of Dade County's disaster relief coordinator, who charged that political posturing was victimizing the hungry and homeless in the stricken area and demanded that Bush "follow up on the commitments he made."
"I heard some local officials who were . . . quite critical," Bush said. "But I understand that. These people have been up all night. They've been worried about their constituency. They're wondering how their people are going to get fed. And so I can understand tempers flaring, but I don't want to contribute to that.
"If any federal official is trying to blame a state official, I want it to stop. And if any state official is trying to blame the federal official or local official, that's not constructive. I know it makes very good, wonderful debate, but it doesn't help anything.
"I am determined that from the federal government standpoint, we give maximum cooperation to local and state officials, and that's the way it's going to be."