Praise Columbia Shuttle Crew, Not Bush's Policies

The instant the heart wrenching news broke of the fiery deaths of the seven crew members of the Columbia space shuttle, the big question was would the tragedy inflate Bush's standing? A national crisis or a colossal human tragedy often reinforces the knee-jerk instinct of the public and politicians to rally around their leaders. But in the days before the Columbia tragedy, congressional Democrats and the top Democratic presidential contenders had finally gave some sign that they had awakened from their near comatose fear and indulgence of Bush's policies.

They lambasted him for his tax cut proposal that gives away billions to the rich, for the legion of ultra-conservatives he has nominated to federal courts, for his proposal to radically reconfigure Medicare, Medicaid, for his scheme to privatize Social Security, his faith based initiative, proposals that would further trash the environment, and his planned assault on abortion rights. He hammered on these themes in his State of the Union address.

In addition, Bush's relentless beat of the war drum on Iraq has propelled thousands of protestors into the streets. And there is no hint that the Columbia shuttle tragedy will slow down his war plans. His backing of a lawsuit by white students to dump the University of Michigan's affirmative action program stoked the rage of many blacks and Latinos. An unfavorable Supreme Court decision expected in April could put the final nail in the coffin of affirmative action programs at colleges. He even angered some conservatives by not taking a harder-line stance on affirmative action and abortion. The fury of Democrats and the discontent of much of the American public over these polices shoved down Bush's approval ratings nearly to those of pre-September 11.

But the notion that the Columbia blow-up can patch the tatter on Bush's post 9/11 seeming cloak of invincibility ignores the fact that tragedy is never enough to get presidents off the political hook for their failed and flawed policies, their personal dereliction, or criminal conduct. At the height of the Watergate scandal in 1973, Nixon put American troops on a world alert during the Arab-Israeli war. The pending (some say manufactured) American military crisis didn't save him. More damaging Watergate revelations surfaced, and Nixon resigned to avoid an impeachment vote.

When the Challenger space shuttled exploded in 1986, Reagan got high marks for his eloquent words and leadership. Yet, Democrats continued to pound him with investigations, and congressional hearings into the Iran-Contra scandal.

Several key Reagan officials were indicted. Reagan finished out the last two years of his second term with the taint of the scandal still hanging heavy in the air. The elder Bush, fresh off his Gulf War triumph in 1990, racked up astronomical ratings. But those ratings evaporated faster than a Houdini disappearing act when the economy plummeted, joblessness soared, and racial unrest rocked many American cities following the acquittal of the LAPD cops that beat black motorist Rodney King.

Clinton also got much praise for his handling of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, but Republicans (and some Democrats) hounded him mercilessly for the Monica Lewinsky and Whitewater scandals. Though his popularity ratings remained high, a Republican-controlled House still voted to impeach him.

Then there's Bush. In the days immediately before the September 11 attacks, Bush took big hits for what many considered his theft of the White House in 2000 with a rigged Florida vote, and a majority ruling by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, his refusal to attend the World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, for pushing the economy into recession, and rising job layoffs. The September 11 terror attacks instantly transformed his public image from that of a political bumbler, and the butt of public ridicule, to a tough and admired wartime leader.

But Bush has tarnished the shine on his post September 11 star with his perilous policies on Iraq, the economy, abortion, the environment, and his judiciary nominees. The Columbia shuttle tragedy does not change the fact that those policies are still just as perilous. If congressional Democrats were prepared to wage battle against them before the Columbia tragedy they must still wage that battle. If a large number of Americans were prepared to wage battle against a pending Iraq attack, and over civil rights and economic justice concerns before the Columbia tragedy, they must still wage that battle.

A national tragedy, no matter how deep and painful, is never reason to chill protest and stifle dissent against the bad policies, and the reckless actions of presidents. In other words, the nation should praise the Columbia crew, but not Bush's policies.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion Web site: He is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).


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