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When disaster hits, president in line for blame

Washington Bureau Chieffritz
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By SARA FRITZ, Times Washington Bureau Chief

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2003
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WASHINGTON -- Sitting in church with his wife, Laura, President Bush received a vivid reminder Sunday that his critics are likely to blame him for the nation's most recent tragedy, the loss of the space shuttle.

"From Iraq, there are folks who say that this is God's way of getting back at the United States because of our posture toward Iraq," said the Rev. Luis Leon of St. John's Episcopal Church near the White House.

Leon described such thinking as "hokum ... just garbage." But his words sounded like the opening buzzer in an all-out scramble among politicians in Washington during the next few months to find someone to blame for the shuttle disaster.

Of course, it would be unfair to blame Bush, or any one person, for such a tragedy.

But that is one of the risks of being president. It's why Jimmy Carter was held responsible for the Iran hostage crisis, and why Bill Clinton got away with claiming credit for creating a strong economy.

And when the blame-seekers begin scrutinizing Bush's policies, they will likely find him vulnerable on two counts.

First, he will be accused of advocating budget cuts that weakened the safety of the space program. When Bush appointed Sean O'Keefe to head NASA, critics argued that the appointee, a former official of the Office of Management and Budget, was "a budgeteer, not a rocketeer."

Second, the gruesome deaths of the seven astronauts aboard the shuttle will serve as a grim reminder for many Americans that Bush is courting danger by pledging to go to war with Iraq.

"This is more than we can stomach," Leon said. "It's like Job's question: Why all the suffering? Why do the good suffer? Or as Billy Joel states, Why do the good die young?"

From the end of World War II until Sept. 11, 2001, Americans generally felt they lived in a safe place. If the lives of our young men and women in the military were going to be lost anywhere, it would be on a foreign battlefield -- not at home.

The space shuttle disaster, combined with the massive loss of life during the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, have helped to undermine our feeling of safety.

If we go to war against Iraq, according to both the CIA and Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., the resulting loss of life will include American soldiers dying in the Middle East and, perhaps, American citizens dying as casualties of suicide bombers within the United States.

As Leon said, "That's how it feels, doesn't it -- that this is more than we can stomach."

Today, meanwhile, is what is known as "budget day" in Washington -- the day the president unveils his proposed budget for the coming fiscal year. It is the one day each year when the dull subject of the federal budget takes center stage. And in light of Saturday's space shuttle disaster, the president's proposed expenditures for NASA will receive an unusual amount of attention.

As president, Bush has trimmed NASA's budget. And even the president's best friends think his tight-fisted budgeting at NASA has been carried out at the expense of safety.

"I think the leader of NASA must look at the big picture," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, a Bush loyalist, said last year when O'Keefe was named. "I don't think the leader of NASA can be just a budget-cutter."

Like most Democrats, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson disagrees with Bush's efforts to starve the federal government by cutting taxes.

"Over the past decade, NASA's budget has not increased in real spending dollars," Nelson said. "The safety upgrades for the space shuttle have been delayed, and there have been a number of us, in NASA as well, that have been hammering on the administration to continue these upgrades."

Before the space shuttle tragedy, O'Keefe was planning to be in Washington today to defend NASA's budget. He was going to say that as a result of his leadership, the runaway costs of the space program were finally under control.

The irony is that NASA is likely to get more money from Congress as a result of the Columbia disaster, Nelson says. But no one yet knows if or how the weekend tragedy will impact the president's other priorities, particularly his campaign to declare war on Iraq.

-- Sara Fritz can be reached by e-mail at and by telephone at 202-463-0576.

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