WASHINGTON — Three years ago, Hurricane Katrina and its chaotic aftermath produced a collage of indelible images. Among them was a photo of President Bush, viewing the devastation from the comfort of Air Force One as he jetted to Washington.
Now, some of Bush's closest advisors say his administration's response to the disaster marked a turning point in what has become the most unpopular presidency in modern history. From then on, they say in a magazine article published this week, his tenure entered a downward spiral from which he could never recover.
"Katrina to me was the tipping point," said Matthew Dowd, the president's pollster and chief strategist in his 2004 reelection.
"Politically, it was the final nail in the coffin," added Dan Bartlett, former White House counselor and longtime aide to Bush.
Their comments are part of an oral history of the Bush administration included in the February issue of Vanity Fair.
Some polling supports their conclusion. After Katrina, Bush never again would see even the lukewarm approval ratings that he enjoyed in the summer of 2005. Even then, less than a year after he had secured reelection, his support nationally was eroding largely because of the extended conflict in Iraq. After early 2005, his approval ratings dropped below 50%, never to reclaim a majority of the public's support.
After Katrina struck in late August, plunging New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast underwater, Bush's numbers went into "free-fall," according to John Zogby, president of the polling firm Zogby International. "The decline was accelerated," he said.
With the government's halting and confused response to the calamity, the "president broke his bond with the public," Dowd told Vanity Fair. "Once that bond was broken, he no longer had the capacity to talk to the American public. State of the Union addresses? It didn't matter. Legislative initiatives? It didn't matter. Travel? It didn't matter."
For many, Bush's actions epitomized the government's slow response. The storm barreled through Louisiana on the morning of Aug. 29, 2005. By that afternoon, several levees had failed and much of New Orleans and the surrounding parishes were flooded.
Bush had been vacationing at his Texas ranch. On the Monday the storm hit, he traveled to Arizona and California to champion Medicare legislation.
The next day, as Americans heard reports of looting in New Orleans and of thousands trapped in the city's Superdome and convention center, Bush spoke at San Diego's North Island Naval Air Station and was photographed playing guitar with a country music performer. On Wednesday, he cut his trip short and decided to return to Washington to monitor the crisis.
Along the way, Air Force One dipped low over the devastated city. Bush was captured by a White House photographer, peering out the window. The shot was meant to show the president was engaged, but it ultimately sent the opposite message.
"It was the wrong visual," Zogby said. "It was emblematic of a failing presidency."
That Friday, as televised images of a city under siege bombarded viewers worldwide, the president returned to the region and issued his now infamous validation of the efforts of Michael D. Brown, then-director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," Bush said.
Brown resigned 10 days later.
Brown provided his own perspective to Vanity Fair, blaming himself for failing to advise the president of the severity of the crisis and for sticking to "talking points" when addressing the public. He also slammed Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for inserting "a massive bureaucracy" into the government response.
Michael Dimock, associate director of the Pew Research Center, says the images from Katrina sharpened feelings that many Americans already held toward the Iraq war, which was dragging into its third year.
"Katrina was the most vivid in the public mind," Dimock said. "It suggested a lack of caring, a lack of being in touch. It reinforced what was in people's thoughts about what was going on in Iraq at the time."
In the months after the 9/11 attacks, Dimock said, when his polling asked for a single word to describe Bush's presidency, the most frequent responses were "leadership" and "strength." After Katrina, he said, "the top word was 'incompetent.' "
Bush leaves the White House in January with some of the lowest marks of any recent president. According to a Pew survey released this month, just 11% of Americans rate Bush as an "above-average president," compared with 59% for Ronald Reagan and 44% for Bill Clinton as they left office.
And 58% of those surveyed scored Bush as "below average."