Jewish World Review Feb. 3, 2003 / 1 Adar I, 5763


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Columbia Freezes Partisan Debates | A national tragedy freezes public debate on contentious issues. This phenomenon is due in large part to respect for the victims, but also an uncertainty about how a wounded public might react to early comments on sensitive issues.

The Sunday shows largely jettisoned their planned political guests in favor of those who could try to help Americans understand the astronaut experience, consider early indications of what might have gone so horribly wrong, and speculate on what might become of the space program.

Gone were British Prime Minister Tony Blair, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-TX, Democratic presidential contender and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. In their place were NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, former astronaut and Senator Bill Nelson, D-FL, and a host of grizzled journalists who have covered the space program.

O'Keefe, appearing on all four major programs, was a level, soothing presence. "We are not going to leave any stone unturned in the investigation," he promised the nation and the families of the astronauts. He discounted terrorism as a cause, but did not rule it out. He seemed cool to a presidential commission investigating and denied that budget cuts, age of the craft, or the use of "low bidders" denigrated pre-flight safety checks.

Surprisingly, usually genial Bob Schieffer of Face the Nation was the toughest and most skeptical questioner

"We don't want to place blame, but should we have thought of aborting the mission?" Scheiffer asked, referring to the scraps of insulation that flew off the Columbia during take-off and hit the left wing. "How can you be sure it wasn't terrorism?" He asked at another point.

Tim Russert on Meet the Press, Tony Snow on Fox, and George Stephanopolous on This Week were less aggressive than Schieffer and accomplished just as much. Stephanopolous was the only one to ask if sabotage was being considered as a cause.

Sen. Nelson was asked on Fox if he had faith in O'Keefe. "At first, I didn't," he acknowledged, but then said he was confident the NASA Administrator was the right person for the job. "We can't continue safety upgrades if NASA is starved," Nelson declared, but he was quick to say that budget cuts were not a factor in this accident.

Speaking of the future of the space program, Nelson said, "The nation has to be led by the president. The will of the American people is that we explore space."

On Meet the Press, NBC space consultant Jay Barbree, who has covered the space program for 45 years, said of NASA, "They're a dedicated bunch. They'll find out what happened and they'll get back to flying."

The only scheduled guests to maintain their Sunday spots were Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn, on Face the Nation and Iraqi Ambassador to the UN Mohammed Aldouri on Fox. Frist was only asked about issues related to the Columbia tragedy and he was cautious discussing both the future of the space program and the level of investigation that the Senate might initiate.

Aldouri was not the least bit conciliatory. He claimed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld knew Saddam Hussein better than he did and he thanked the New York Times for defending Iraq. Brit Hume called Aldouri's responses "word salad."


On Face the Nation, former astronaut Richard M. Mullane compared the insulation that fell off the Columbia and hit the wing to an empty Styrofoam cooler flying off a pick-up truck and hitting a car at 70 mph. He did not think the incident did any damage.


Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-TX, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and Brit Hume all argued for the space program as a competitive enterprise. Aldrin warned that China was developing a space program and Hutchison said, "We cannot be in 2nd place. I want us to be pre-eminent." Hume's formulation was "We will be leaders, we will be the pioneers."


The Fox panel all agreed that President Bush's speech to the nation struck the right tone, but would not have long-term political impact. Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard praised its "subtlety."


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Fox panelist and NPR correspondent Juan Williams got a nice plug from host Tony Snow for his new book, "This Far by Faith." Williams described his book as a contrast: "Where Jesse Ventura would say faith is for the weak, I would say faith is for the strong."


On The News Hour, taped before the Columbia disaster, this exchange about international support for war with Iraq:

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields: "It's a coalition of the willing to make a deal."

The Weekly Standard's David Brooks: "I don't think it's a coalition of the bribed."


Juan Williams, discussing the Administration making its case against Iraq, said, "The joke is that the President showed some leg and Colin Powell is going to show some thigh."


David Brooks, after saying the President's tax cut is "in trouble," revealed that he is having second thoughts: "I've defended the tax cut, but I've fallen out of love with it."

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PunditWatch is written by JWR contributor Will Vehrs. Comment by clicking here.

01/27/03: Pundits Pass on Preview
01/21/03: Michigan Case Leads Peace Marches
01/13/03: Frist Debuts as Sunday Star
01/06/03: Back to the fun and games!
12/30/02: Peripatetic Powell pacifies pundits
12/23/02: A Lott to let go before Fristing
12/16/02: Lott jury and flogging post
12/09/02: Issues overwhelm pundits
12/02/02: Real news and pundit news
11/25/02: In a muddle, Saudis rise to the top


© 2002, Will Vehrs