Mr. President: Here's what we need to hear

September 08, 2005|By DAN RODRICKS

MY FELLOW Americans: You lived through the horror of 9/11, witnessed our nation under attack in an unprecedented way. Now you see our ruined cities and towns along the Gulf Coast, and you look at your government's response to this devastating natural disaster, predicted several days in advance, and you wonder whether your government is prepared for another surprise attack by terrorists in this dangerous age.

It's an understandable concern.

The catastrophe of 9/11 should have made us razor-sharp ready for anything, even something on the scale of a Category 4 hurricane hitting a major coastal city sitting below sea level.

But obviously, somewhere along the way, we lost focus.

I'll go even further and say, straight up and with a heavy heart, that mistakes have been made, and that we -- not just my administration, but administrations before mine, the Congress, the state and federal agencies -- were not taking care to see that everything was done to limit damage, as much as possible, to people in this highly vulnerable part of the country.

You may think that, no matter what we did, the storm still would have won the day, and the results would have been the same.

But, this is America, and we don't give up that easily. We don't settle for mediocrity.

I know what the script says. The president is supposed to maintain confidence and assure the American people that -- despite what you've seen on CNN -- your government is totally prepared and equipped to protect you.

Well, we're not there yet.

As powerful as Katrina was, our response could have been greater. Our preparations could have been greater.

I have vowed an inquiry into the response to Katrina. That inquiry should be conducted by an independent body, separate from the White House or Congress, so I am asking former senators Warren Rudman and Gary Hart to handle it.

As for your president and this government, we're going to do what needs to be done in Katrina's aftermath.

I am not going to take another vacation for the rest of my term. You have my assurance, from now until the day my successor is sworn into office, that I will devote myself completely to not only the recovery from Katrina but also to a whole new deal -- New Deal II -- across the domestic front.

My fellow citizens, it should not have taken another catastrophe for us to see this. But it is clear that we must look inward, to fix the great American house. Our house is not in order.

Not only do we have the great city of New Orleans to rebuild, but we need to refocus our attention on the human infrastructure of this nation, the people who still believe in the dream of America, despite all the setbacks we have suffered in recent years.

We are a rich and powerful nation, but we also need to be a smarter, more focused and healthier one.

This is a good time for us to call to public service -- in our armed forces, or in a new domestic service force, or a revitalized and expanded Peace Corps -- our young Americans who have nothing but future before them.

It has been too long since Americans were inspired by their leaders to give their time, sweat and intellect for the good of the country. That time is upon us again. Before I leave office, I want to have in place a plan for two-year mandatory public or military service for every man and woman, between the ages of 18 and 21. You can help protect America from its enemies, or help us make new friends around the world, tutor our grade-school children in math, volunteer to work in the national parks, or jump in with relief when disaster strikes.

In return for this public service, we promise to give future generations of Americans a better, cleaner, safer world by establishing holistic public policy informed by science, by planning smarter communities, by upgrading basic municipal systems, such as water supply and treatment, by expanding public transportation, by raising fuel-economy standards of motor vehicles, by diversifying our energy supply, and bringing more imagination and practical wisdom to how we fuel American society.

In return for your service to America, we promise our children the best education on earth. Our part of the deal is an education that provides children, rich or poor, with everything they need to compete in this global economy.

Those of us who have lived to middle life or old age owe it to the next generation not to repeat our mistakes, not to keep denying our problems, not to keep doing the cynical things that divide us. We need to leave to our young an America on solid footing, an America that is as generous as it is rich, as diverse as it is united, as humble as it is powerful, as vigilant as it is free, as progressive as it is practical. Let's get to it.

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