Man Without Qualities


Sunday, February 02, 2003


Already Political Squalor Among The Ashes

There are many valid public reactions to the Columbia disaster - and a lot more reactions that should only be allowed grudgingly and in private.

The apparent jubilation of some Iraqis and attempts to characterize the shuttle loss as an act of divine vengeance is obviously sacrilegious - on the order of certain comments by a few misguided American evangelists following 9-11. If loss of a space shuttle signifies divine displeasure, what is the loss of one's entire country in an international enforcement action?

But surely an attempt to direct generalized political "accountability" for this disaster - especially to remote elected officials such as the President or Congress - is merely squalid, such as this effort from New York Times:

President Bush will surely need to summon all the courage he can muster and more important, summon the nation's in the days and weeks ahead. For even as he tries to rally an anxious nation and doubting allies for a war, he will face a new, if predictable, challenge: public demands for answers and political demands for accountability.

Is that right? Is it “predictable” that the President will be subject to “political demands for accountability?” President Reagan wasn’t exposed significantly to such “demands” - so why are they “predictable?” Are such demands “predictable" to the Times because the Times itself is planning to make such demands – and, in fact, isn't the Times already making such demands through this very article?

Even after accepting the inevitability of the Times' dread that the President's standing will likely be enhanced if he handles this disaster well, couldn't the Times at least wait a day or so before treating its readership to political spin and this cynical “prediction”?

What is predicable is that NASA officials will be questioned (justly or not) about whatever risks they accepted, ignored or knew about, and political questions will be raised about the future of the manned space program. And it is also predictable that if the President fails to adequately address the nation's immediately emotional needs, or does not make good decisions about the future of the space program, his standing could suffer. But that's all very different than the Times' "prediction" that the President will be held politically accountable for the disaster itself.

Wouldn’t it be better for the Times to just accept the fact that a national leader is “accountable” for how he handles an actual crisis, rather than “predict” a wholly avoidable, squalid argument where none is needed?

MORE: The Times article cited above also includes the following curious passage:

For Americans already grappling with a confluence of threatening events, the instinctive reaction was, "What next?" Like the space shuttle Challenger disaster 17 years ago this week and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the disintegration of the shuttle Columbia played out in real time before a nationwide television audience, sparking many of the same unsettled feelings.

The author of this article, Todd Purdum, is entitled to his own thoughts. But it is highly unlikely - to say the least - that a reporter can obtain any knowledge of "the instinctive reaction" of "Americans" within hours of such an event. And by what magic spell has Mr. Purdum put himself in contact with the minds of tens of millions of his countrypeople to report credibly that the Columbia disaster was "sparking many of the same unsettled feelings" through the nation as did the destruction of the Challenger? Has he traveled the highways and byways of America searching out the thoughts of the commonfolk in the, say, 27 hours between the disaster and the filing of his report? Of course not. He hasn't had time to talk to more than a handful of people about this disaster. Has the Times taken a quick poll? Mr. Purdum doesn't mention any.

It is obvious that Mr. Purdum is just making this stuff up and doesn't have any particular knowledge of the "instinctive reactions," "unsettled feelings" or whether any significant number of Americans saw this disaster as part of some larger "confluence of threatening events" that requires "grappling."

But Mr. Purdum's approach sure does make a reporter's job easier. Mickey Kaus quips ironically "Always generalize from personal experience!"

Mr. Purdum seems to have taken that Kaussian quip to heart in an extreme fashion that is anything but ironic.


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