Washington — President Bush vowed, "We are fully prepared." Mike Brown barked orders. Weather experts warned of a killer storm. The behind-the-scenes drama, captured on videotape as Hurricane Katrina roared ashore, confirmed Americans' suspicions of government leaders: They can run a good meeting, but little else.
It is hard to review the transcripts and footage obtained by The Associated Press without reaching three conclusions.
¢ Federal, state and local officials knew what was about to occur.
¢ They knew what to do about it.
¢ They failed to deliver.
For most Americans, this is not a revelation. The public blamed all levels of government long before Bush and other leaders owned up to their responsibilities after the sluggish post-Katrina response. But the videotape and transcripts offer a graphic display of a fatally inept bureaucracy at work - a system where everybody talks a good game and nobody produces.
"The city of New Orleans failed. The state of Louisiana failed. The federal government failed. It is astonishing to me that five months after the obvious failure of all three layers of government that there has been no serious systemic change," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican.
It's no wonder Katrina has become a tipping point event that crystalized the public's long-simmering concerns about the competence and accountability of government.
A bit more jaded than before Katrina, Americans are less likely to give Bush the benefit of the doubt, and they are quicker to question his positions on the Iraq war and post-hurricane controversies such as the port security issue.
The president can no longer say, "Trust me," without a majority of Americans asking, "Why should we?" But this is not just about Bush.
A Pew survey two months after Katrina showed Americans expressing increasingly negative views of a wide range of major institutions, including Congress, corporations and oil companies.
A separate Roper poll suggests the public is twice as likely to have a lot of confidence in individual Americans than the government in times of tragedy.
Some people, like Gingrich, think the only solution is massive reforms.
"The entire system of the 19th and early 20th century government which we inherited is incapable of moving at the speeds of the modern world," the former House speaker said.
For most Americans, it's not a matter of bigger government or smaller government. They want better government; less bureaucracy, less partisanship and more accountability. They don't expect their leaders to be perfect; only perfectly frank.
"They want us to get things done," said Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat. "Is that so much to ask?"