Katrina exposed that the emperor had no clothes--and now we have to deal with it

Life inside the Beltway once again has taken on a fairy-tale quality. It's not the Kennedy/Camelot thing, though. It's much more Brothers Grimm, a dark, twisty story featuring preposterous lying, near-criminal fecklessness, untrammeled greed and the occasional old woman shoved into an oven.

You don't even have to follow the plot to tell who's who. It's like Dickens, or the low parts of a Shakespeare comedy: The characters fit their names.

Last week, we got Michael Scanlon served up on a platter. Scanlon, who's a nasty piece of work in a Jack and the Beanstalk sort of way, was a sidekick to scheming Jack Abramoff, and a former aide to House majority leader Tom DeLay. This gives us Scanlon the Scammer first serving the player who knew how all the cards lay, then joining forces with the king of the rip-off.

It would seem weirder if we hadn't already been through Enron, where a man named Lay depended on two shady fellows named Fastow and Skilling, who turned out to be specialists in pulling fast ones and making killings. Surprise.

Either all these guys were twisted in infancy by schoolyard name-calling, or the gods are having a wee joke with us. In any case, none of it imitates nature.

For those of us who have said all along that the emperor had no clothes--that, in fact, he was tattooed from head to foot with the word "naked"--these strange times are satisfying (to the vengeful and wrath-filled among us, such as myself), but bizarre. We're confronted with the spectacle of that many-headed beast called Congress slapping its hundreds of foreheads all at once. They only knew what the White House told them! They had no reason to doubt! Could it be they were lied to about Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction?! (Apparently they never read The New Yorker or The Atlantic or The Nation or even watched the evening news. Strange.)

I have the sense that this line is not going down well. We are awakening from a long, candy-colored dream and realizing that we are not children, and Iraq is not a bedtime story, or a war movie, or a video game. It is a real catastrophe of our own making, and it will be with us for a long, long time to come. It took a big storm and 2,000 body bags to bring that home.

President Bush must be terribly confused and unhappy, and when you think about it, he has every reason to be. We all seemed so eager to play "let's pretend" with him, and the game was going fine, and he got to wear outfits and make his friends rich and happy, and then whomp! the God who had always been in his corner sends a hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast, of all things, and suddenly everyone starts looking around and sees that the house is a mess and there's nothing to eat and it's starting to get dark.

We can't seem to find our parents.

Guess what? We don't have any. We are the grown-ups. But we, the citizens of the greatest country on Earth, have been behaving like kids. We've believed what we were told and what we were shone, because it made a nice story. Of course, we first elected (or almost elected, or something) an obvious fool as president before Sept. 11, but I believe the nation would have seen through him a long time ago if it hadn't been for the shock of that attack. That's what I prefer to think, anyway. If it hadn't been for the World Trade Center, maybe the media, usually so fickle, would have admitted much sooner that they'd picked the wrong horse--that disliking Bush's opponents was not a good enough reason to keep peddling whatever storyline the White House fed them.

So now, in a matter of less than three months, they've gone from complimenting the emperor on his beautiful robes--his cleverness, his chastity, his leadership--to screaming that he's a flasher. Make no mistake: If it weren't for Katrina, they'd still be sucking up to his tailor.

He was naked all along. We have to live with that. But we must get busy--the dark is drawing in. If we hurry, we may be able to recover some of the loot, stop the plunder of the environment, address the deficit, mend some fences. Hashing over the administration's manipulation of intelligence three years ago is a waste of time, and a further distraction from reality. We have to shake off the enchantment and deal with the world as it is now.

The world as it really is.

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