Shuttle Tragedy 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 subjects

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 from the schedule were British Prime Minister Tony Blair, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, Democratic presidential contender and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. In their place were NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, former astronauts, including Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and a host of grizzled journalists who have long covered the space program.

Appearing on all four major programs, O’Keefe 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 investigation.

O’Keefe denied that budget cuts, age of the craft, or the use of “low bidders” denigrated pre-flight safety routines.

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. Later, he asked impatiently, “How can you be sure it wasn’t terrorism?”

Tim Russert on Meet the Press, Tony Snow on Fox, and George Stephanopolous on This Week were less aggressive than Schieffer but 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 U.N. Ambassador Mohammed Aldouri on Fox. Frist was only asked about issues related to the Columbia tragedy.

Aldouri offered no conciliatory words from Iraq. He claimed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld knew Saddam Hussein better than he did and thanked the New York Times for exonerating Iraq. Brit Hume called Aldouri’s responses “word salad.”

Analogy for Laymen

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.

The Spirit of JFK

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, on Fox, and former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, on Meet the Press, argued for the space program as a competitive enterprise. Aldrin warned darkly that China was developing a manned space program and Hutchison said, “We cannot be in second place. I want us to be pre-eminent.”

Bush’s Speech

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,” noting that the president never used the word “I.”

Coalitions for Cash?

The News Hour, taped before the Columbia disaster, featured 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.”

Washington Humor

NPR’s Juan Williams, on Fox, discussing the administration’s steps in making its case against Iraq, said, “The joke is that the president showed some leg and Colin Powell is going to show some thigh.”

Change of Heart

David Brooks, on The News Hour, said the president’s tax cut is “in trouble,” and revealed that he is having second thoughts: “I’ve defended the tax cut, but I’ve fallen out of love with it.”

Will Vehrs is an economic developer in Richmond, Va. who turned his lifelong obsession with pundit shows into this web log.  His "Punditwatch" column appears on Tony Adragna's Quasipundit; he recently began writing "Virginia Pundit Watch" for Bacon's Rebellion.

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