It is hard to tell at the moment what long-lasting impact an event may have. President George W. Bush did not want to impede the rescue work going on after Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005, and thus flew over New Orleans rather than stopping to demonstrate his concern. Katrina haunted him till the end of his second term. It became known as a “Katrina Moment” and signifies a public official who shows a lack of empathy for those suffering at a time of tragedy.
Such it was on August 8th when President Biden was on vacation at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware and asked about the ongoing fire disaster in Hawaii. His response was “No Comment.” For possibly the first time, almost all the media sources agreed that this was a tone-deaf response to a very serious issue.
Yet even so, President Biden continued his vacation and then traveled to Lake Tahoe in Nevada, renting billionaire Tom Steyer’s $15 million lakeside home to accommodate himself, his wife Jill, and children Hunter and Ashley, as well as members of their families. But apparently, the pressure got the better of him, given that there was no advance notice, as President Biden and his wife, flew to the island of Maui on Monday, August 21st, to review the damage and express concerns.
This is one of those times when leaders can make history. President Roosevelt assured the nation after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, in his “Day of Infamy” speech. President Reagan encouraged a shocked nation in his “Challenger Disaster” speech in January 1986. And even President George W. Bush spoke the words that America needed to hear when he was visiting Ground Zero on September 14, 2001. While surveying the damage, someone asked him a question, and when he began to answer, he was told that they could not hear him. President Bush grabbed a bullhorn while standing atop a crumpled fire truck and said, “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
This is what we want and expect from our leaders, especially one who is considered the “leader of the free world.” They speak with a force behind them that could even put a man on the moon. The tragedy that took place in Hawaii in August was horrific, and the opportunity was open to inspire the nation itself and not just Hawaii.
Yet here is what we received in President Biden’s speech at Lahaina on the island of Maui on August 21st. He started by acknowledging what a great, bang-up job their governor and lieutenant governor, US senator and representative, and even local mayor were doing. Then the president transitioned by noting a banyan tree to his left that, for some reason, reminded him of a mentor he had in the Senate, Danny Inouye, a former senator from Hawaii. Then, after some stories of his old days at the Senate, he alluded to the tree again.
President Biden then transitioned to express empathy by relating his own suffering from his first wife and daughter’s death in an auto accident in 1972 and his experience with house fires from a kitchen fire at his home in 2004, where he stated, “I almost lost my wife, my ’67 Corvette, and my cat.”
Finally, he wrapped up his remarks by citing the help coming from the various government offices and “Bob.” He called out Bob Fenton by his first name from the crowd as Chief Federal Response Coordinator for Maui to lead the long-term recovery work. He noted that his man Bob is “one of the nation’s most experienced disaster response and recovery experts in America” and that he has been directed “to make sure the community has everything — everything the federal government can offer to heal and to rebuild as fast as possible.” And with that promise, he closed his remarks by going back to the banyan tree for the third time, “a diamond in the rough of hope” because “fire cannot reach its roots.”
This probably would have been a worthwhile stump speech for someone running for a political office, but the moment definitely cried for something more. Even the delivery seemed flippant at times. Keep in mind this was one of the deadliest fires in United States history. Thousands of acres have been burned out, and at least 2,200 houses and buildings were destroyed. And worst of all, as of this writing, at least 115 people are known dead, and 850 or more are still missing, many of them children. Many of those in the audience that President Biden was addressing had everything taken from them.
Pain needs more than promises; it needs hope. Real hope inspires and gives strength and motivation to face the future. Empty hope comes from meaningless metaphors like banyan trees.