Video: A Torn Town

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updated 2/21/2006 5:39:30 PM ET 2006-02-21T22:39:30

President Bush's supporters and critics agree that the government's response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina will be a big part of his legacy. 

Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley was one of the thousands of New Orleans residents evacuated during the storm and catastrophic flooding that followed.  He is now back there teaching again at Tulane University and his new book, scheduled for an April release, is called “The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.” 

Brinkley joined Chris Matthews on ‘Hardball’ to discuss New Orleans, the Bush presidency and the Katrina aftermath.

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, ‘HARDBALL’:  Let me ask you about this fight over the presidency and the vice presidency.  What had struck me, we didn't get to it in our previous conversation but will always strike me was the decision by the vice president in this case, forget his relations with the press and the public not to call the president all weekend, the weekend he shot someone in the face. 

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN:  Well, particularly when it said shot in the face, it's—that's what's going to be remembered.  Look, there's no question about the fact that the Bush administration isn't handling the media very well.  They for a long time, up until the last election, you had Karl Rove and the neocons having the media on the run. 

I think Katrina blew the lid off things.  I think the hubris factor with the media now and tracking and staying on Bush and, as you just mentioned, they may be doing that now with Dick Cheney is just going to increase. 

It's always a mistake to take on The New York Times in the kind of fashion that the Bush administration has and Richard Nixon learned that the hard way. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about it.  It seems to me you made a point there.  People can never in the near term gauge the success or the confidence of our campaign in Iraq but they can quickly gauge the failure here at home.  And you're saying that because they see the failure of Katrina which is manifest, they're much more willing to say, yes and my hunch about the war over there, is it's not going well. 

BRINKLEY:  I think so.  I think here in New Orleans, all the media NBC, right where I'm sitting, was just everywhere and they witnessed the fact that FEMA wasn't coming, that supplies weren't coming, that the White House was saying something else and some of the first responders were journalists. 

This lives on in whether it's FOX News, or CNN or ABC or any of the print reporters, they know that the White House had a credibility break down, that President Bush was not on the job and we've just heard Republicans bringing out reports saying the same. 

So they're not going to give this president any kind of slack, if when Dick Cheney doesn't report immediately something like that hunting accident, which is a human mistake. He must feel terrible, we all know that, but that failure to report it, they're going to come at him like the Johnstown Flood and you get this sort of situation where now I think Dick Cheney is going to be remembered in history and popular imagination for this the way Dan Quayle is for potato.  Sometimes you remember it for one thing.

In truth Cheney is a very important figure from Ford, Reagan, onwards.  A neocon leader, a major person in Bush's biography, but for the popular imagination, the hunting accident is what people are going to remember. 

MATTHEWS:  That's what Jack Kennedy said when he was president in a private conversation.  I did that book on him.  He said that people only remember for like one thing they do, like Arthur Godfrey, the great old broadcaster, buzzing a radio tower, an airport tower, in Virginia once.  That's all they remember you for. 

What about the journalists like Brian Williams and Anderson Cooper going down there from various networks all showing sympathy, in fact a bit of outrage, about the failure of the government to deliver?  Is that going to be part of the legacy of Katrina? 

BRINKLEY:  Absolutely is.  I mean, Brian Williams went into The Superdome, he was the one that first, using his cell phone, captured the hole in The Superdome roof.  Shepherd Smith, of FOX News was standing on the Gretna Bridge when the Gretna police weren't allowing people to evacuate from the Convention Center. 

Anderson Cooper now has become a household name because of Katrina.  Interestingly enough, Cooper was born in New Orleans, Shepherd Smith from Mississippi.  They had a sensibility to this region and had good contacts.

But many other journalists, NBC, a reporter—or camera man for NBC Tony Zimbato broke into the Convention Center and filmed it and you guys at NBC have footage of Katrina not shown yet on the air that will be historic documentation of some of some of the things that occurred.  It was too gruesome to even air at the time, but the media is not going to forget what happened down here and they're going to be bringing it up on the one year anniversary, two year anniversary, and I think it maybe a tipping point for Bush's legacy was what occurred during Katrina. 

MATTHEWS:  And that was extraordinary.  I though Tony Zimbato, I was at The West Bank with him and what a great character he is.  What a gutsy guy.  Of course I forgot to mention Sherrod Brown. 

So let me ask you about how this thing is going to come down.  You have a lot of elections coming up down there for governor, for mayor, how are they going to shake out in terms of politics of what went wrong? 

BRINKLEY:  Well, Chris, the mayor is the big one here in town now, but we have all these people in diaspora.  You've got a Mayor Nagin who has been largely discredited, most people give him a D for his handling of Katrina and the aftermath, and then the “Chocolate City” remark.  But he's the sitting mayor, people are going to judge him on that. 

He's trying to create a vision for the future, but you have Mitch Landrieu, the lieutenant governor who is going to be running, and you have a man named Ron Foreman, who is the C.E.O. of Audubon Institute, which is the zoo and the aquarium, a very popular businessman, then a Reverend Watson, African-American minister coming from the left, Peggy Wilson, a Republican, former city councilwomen from the right. 

Bottom line is you have a lot of candidates in April, a lot of visions are going to go forward and I believe will probably end up looking like right now it may be headed into a runoff. 

MATTHEWS:  Landrieu and Nagin in the runoff? 

BRINKLEY:  I don't think Nagin.  I think it's Landrieu and Foreman or Landrieu-Nagin.  Landrieu right now is the odds on favorite because he carries the Democratic Party in the state with him.  The sister is in the Senate.  But mainly, the Landrieu family, starting with his Dad, Moon, were real civil rights advocates. 

Watch 'Hardball' each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC. 

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