- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

A somber President Bush yesterday sought to soothe a nation's psyche already battered by escalating world tensions and a U.S. economy in free fall.
"Our entire nation grieves with you," the president assured the families of the seven astronauts who perished aboard Space Shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated in meteoric streaks 207,135 feet over Texas.
"The cause in which they died will continue," Mr. Bush said. "Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on."
While Mr. Bush spoke calmly in his televised remarks his brow often furrowed, his voice at times no more than a whisper his eyes welled with tears and he was momentarily struck speechless just a few words from the end of his short address to the nation.
"May God bless the grieving families and may God " he said, his voice suddenly choking on the word "God." Then, gathering himself quickly, he finished: " may God continue to bless America."
Mr. Bush paused, walked away from the podium and out of the camera shot, then returned for several seconds, as if to say more, before the live feed was cut off.
Just more than two years into his term, Mr. Bush again was thrust into the role of consoler in chief, seeking to put into words the nation's sorrow over a national loss. The president galvanized the country after the September 11 terrorist attacks, leading to a surge in his popularity among Americans.
But with a war against Iraq looming on the horizon, and confronted with a slumping economy and a nuclear crisis in North Korea, the president's poll numbers had fallen.
Although Americans still approve of the job Mr. Bush is doing by a 2-1 margin, a majority of those surveyed disapprove of his handling of the economy and fewer than half support war with Iraq if the United Nations does not approve military action.
Yet crisis again demanded that Mr. Bush unite a divided nation on a day that "brought terrible news and great sadness to our country."
"This is a sad part of the president's job," a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "It is his role to express on behalf of all America the importance of not only comforting the families but the country."
"This president has had to do this too many times for this nation," said one woman, watching Mr. Bush's address on a bank of televisions in a Northern Virginia electronics store.
Mr. Bush had rushed back to the White House from Camp David, Md., about two hours after the disaster occurred at about 9 a.m. EST, riding through an icy drizzle in a Chevy Suburban sport utility vehicle instead of his customary bulletproof limousine.
As speechwriters prepared his address to the nation, Mr. Bush ordered flags at the White House and elsewhere flown at half-staff and tried to comfort the families.
"I wish I was there to hug and cry and comfort you right now," an emotional Mr. Bush told family members, who stood holding hands in a Kennedy Space Center conference room in Florida where they had expected to welcome their loved ones.
"Millions of Americans are praying for you," the president told them from the Oval Office.
Afterward, he retreated alone to his private study next door.
"It was a somber moment in the room," said deputy White House spokesman Scott McClellan, one of five or so aides present. "I don't think anyone in the room said anything until he walked back in. … He returned to the Oval and said, 'All right, let's go.'"
An hour later, in his four-minute national address carried at 2:04 p.m. EST by more than a dozen networks, Mr. Bush looked to the Bible, in Isaiah 40:26, for answers to "this sudden shock and grief."
"In the words of the prophet Isaiah, 'Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.'
"The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today," Mr Bush said. "The crew of the Shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home."
The line was reminiscent of one uttered by President Reagan in 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger broke up 73 seconds after takeoff, killing all seven on board.
"We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God,'" he said.
The memorable line was a paraphrase from a sonnet, "High Flight," written by John Gillespie Magee Jr., an American airman killed in World War II while serving as a volunteer with the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Mr. Bush used similar soaring rhetoric as he sought to make sense of the loss of seven astronauts, who perished just 16 minutes before completing their 16-day mission.
"In an age when spaceflight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket, and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer atmosphere of the Earth," the president said.
"These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life. Because of their courage and daring and idealism, we will miss them all the more."
Mr. Bush had intended to use the weekend at his retreat in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains preparing for the administration's endgame on Iraq he led a National Security Council briefing via telephone from the presidential retreat.
He telephoned Mexican President Vicente Fox, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, French President Jacques Chirac and Russian President Vladimir Putin before his address; he called Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien afterward.
Mr. Bush first learned of the disaster from Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., the same adviser who first informed him of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Mr. Card, in his cabin at Camp David, was searching for a weather report on television about 9 a.m. when he stopped on NASA's internal TV channel, showing images of Columbia on its re-entry course.
Then Mr. Card saw the news: Contact with Columbia had been lost. He placed a round of calls, then told the president, who was in his own cabin. Mr. Bush asked for constant updates, and Mr. Card spoke with NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe.
Once NASA concluded the shuttle was lost, the grim news was relayed to the president.
As Mr. Bush returned to the White House, the West Wing offices, normally quiet on weekends, were filled with staff. A team of speechwriters, led by Michael Gerson, quickly assembled to put into words the message of the president, who had jotted down a few thoughts and relayed them to senior advisers.
Only the day before, the White House had warned North Korea against taking the "provocative" step of converting nuclear fuel rods into bomb-grade plutonium.
Tuesday night, in his State of the Union address, the president had laid out his ambitious domestic agenda to reverse the slumping economy. He also announced his administration's intentions to disarm Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
A CNN/USA Today survey found that 50 percent of those who watched the speech gauged their reactions as "very positive," while 34 percent were "somewhat positive." Seventy-one percent said they believed the country was headed in the right direction, up from 52 percent.

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