Isn't this Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy oh so convenient for George W. Bush? Just as the entire world (and large segments of the US public) are turning against the impending invasion of Iraq, just as Bush's public approval ratings are declining, just as job layoffs continue and the stock market is going bust, just as he needs to whip up American "national unity" to support an increasingly unpopular war, along comes this Space Shuttle "accident." George Bush will now get a chance to portray himself as a Strong Leader who unites the country as it grieves over a terrible national tragedy. Sound familiar? Its 9-11 all over again.
Bush Leads Nation's Grieving
By RICHARD W. STEVENSON
ASHINGTON, Feb. 1 — President Bush rushed back to the White House today from Camp David to assume once more the role of comforter in chief, this time to a nation already jittery and to some degree divided over the prospect of war.
In the immediate hours after the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia, Mr. Bush spoke to NASA's administrator, Sean O'Keefe, and to families of some of the seven astronauts who had been onboard. Mr. Bush's aides hurriedly began conferring about what the president should say to the nation and how the disaster might affect his efforts to rally public opinion behind a war with Iraq.
At 2 p.m., Mr. Bush spoke to the nation from the Cabinet Room with tears in his eyes, a break in his voice and a strong religious character to his remarks.
The president cited the "high and noble purpose" of the space exploration and the "courage and daring and idealism" of the astronauts.
It was left to Mr. Bush to speak plainly what was already clear: "There are no survivors."
He quoted the prophet Isaiah and paraphrased Scripture, saying, "The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today."
The vivid television pictures of the orbiter tearing into pieces high above Texas revived memories of the loss of the Challenger 17 years and four days ago. They also seemed sure to dominate the national consciousness for days or weeks just as Mr. Bush was stepping up his efforts to convince the country and the world that there was no choice but to force a final showdown with Iraq within weeks.
The president made no reference to anything but the loss of the shuttle in his remarks. Although one of the astronauts was an Israeli, Mr. Bush made no mention of that country's loss. He had spoken earlier with the prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon.
Mr. Bush's comments mixed comfort and sadness with resolve, a combination that presidential scholars and political consultants said he would have to maintain in the coming days and weeks as he juggles a critical moment in foreign policy with the aftermath of tragedy.
They said Mr. Bush, after a shaky start on Sept. 11, 2001, had found his voice in the days afterward and struck a good balance of mourning and determination in his remarks today.
"It serves as a reminder of the centrality of the presidency," said Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton. "He's got to rally the nation on Iraq. It seems to me possible that out of this could come a certain amount of inspiration."
Mr. Bush's role today recalled that played by President Ronald Reagan on the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launching in 1986.
Mr. Reagan postponed the State of the Union address, which had been scheduled for that night, and spoke to the nation instead from the Oval Office.
With great eloquence, Mr. Reagan likened the Challenger's crew members to the great explorers of history and closed by declaring that they had "slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God."
Mr. Bush's task in comforting the country is made more difficult by the likelihood that he will soon be calling on a nation that is still coping with the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, and a weak economy to deal with the shock of the space shuttle tragedy, and the sense of vulnerability it imparts, to be ready to send its troops into battle against Saddam Hussein.
Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, said wartime presidents frequently must reassure the nation that setbacks accompany triumphs, and Mr. Bush was essentially doing that now.
"In foreign policy, Americans are affected more than anything else by the way the president frames the issues of war and peace," Mr. Beschloss said. "If a president says something is so important that we need to go to war, most Americans are emotionally inclined to accept that. The same thing happens when a president is trying to explain a national tragedy."
Rich Galen, a Republican political consultant, said Mr. Bush had shown an ability since Sept. 11 to connect with the American people on an emotional level and mourn with them but still to carry out and explain a determined foreign policy.
"When he does these things, he clearly feels so deeply that people are comforted by the fact that he wears his emotions on his sleeve," Mr. Galen said. "He's been juggling a lot of balls lately, and this is another tragic ball."