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Responses to Remarks on Columbia Disaster
February 1, 2003

Susan Schultz Huxman
Wichita State University

First, one cannot help but compare President George W. Bush's tribute to the Columbia crew to those of President Ronald Reagan's of the Challenger crew 17 years ago. For those who doubt why Reagan was called "The Great Communicator" and why George W. Bush will not be, need only to watch and compare these two similar rhetorical efforts.

The president's "remarks" were disappointing in many ways. I'll offer three short observations here:

1) His words were "remarks" not a "tribute" or an "address to the nation." Though he and his team had several hours to prepare a more poetic tribute, Bush instead opted for a brief, matter-of-fact, discourse that wasn't even delivered in prime-time. Bush has been so consumed with adopting an unflinching commander-in chief role, that he had real difficulty in adopting the role of comforter-in-chief in these non-military circumstances. Both verbally and nonverbally, Bush strove to show resolve, not sadness; strength not vulnerability; pragmatism not poetic flourish. With the exception of two lines (the words from the prophet Isaiah and the last line: "The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home.") the speech is quite forgettable.

2) The visual backdrop was stark and impersonal. For a president so consumed by imagery and packaging (where was Rove?), the staid, sterile backdrop did nothing to humanize his remarks.(Compare the rich, comforting visual backdrop in Reagan's Challenger address.)

3) The expectations of the occasion were not met. The 7 astronauts who perished were not humanized, nor valorized properly. ("On board was a crew of seven" is our first introduction to them.) While the names of each are mentioned, no positive descriptor (compare to Reagan's use of the word "pioneers") is attached to them. There are peculiar lines and short paragraphs that don't connect too. See all of paragraph 5 which begins: "The cause in which they died will continue" as one of the worst examples.

Granted, President Bush and the nation as a whole have been suffering from crisis fatigue, and especially after 9-11, we may be less inclined to feel the loss of the Columbia crew as intensely, but that should not excuse the president from playing the many roles he must play with care, passion, and rhetorical excellence.



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