The Columbia blame game is now under way.

After all, if seven astronauts perished in a high-risk reentry at supersonic speed miles above the earth, it must be someone's fault.

Some of the questions are reasonable: Did NASA ignore past safety warnings, such as those involving the shuttle's insulation and tiles?

And some are, let's face it, a stretch.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before George Bush got dragged into the debate.

How much does he really care about the shuttle program?

Is he guilty of insufficient space enthusiasm?

Why didn't he give NASA more money?

As if any of this might have prevented the disaster.

The press got itself into a mini-tizzy over whether Bush had ever visited Johnson Space Center before delivering a memorial speech there Tuesday.

This strikes us as roughly equivalent to asking, after the 1995 federal building bombing, how much time Bill Clinton had spent in Oklahoma City.

Bush never saw combat, either, but seems to have been a pretty good commander-in-chief.

This is all part of the media's effort to personalize politics. Writing about the collective effort of a bunch of faceless engineers to solve the Columbia riddle isn't that enticing. Much more interesting to wonder to what degree the 43rd president feels our pain.

Of course, the White House didn't help matters by bungling the question of whether Bush had ever been to the NASA center named for another president.

The fuss began with a feature by Elisabeth Bumiller in the New York Times: (http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/03/national/03LETT.html)

"Space program advocates and members of Congress said yesterday that Mr. Bush had until now shown little curiosity about NASA and its programs. He has never visited the Johnson Space Center in Houston, even as governor of Texas, and space advocates say he has largely delegated responsibility for NASA to Vice President Dick Cheney, who has close ties to Sean O'Keefe, the NASA administrator.

"John H. Marburger III, Mr. Bush's science adviser, said he had not met with the president specifically about space exploration, and had instead spent large portions of his time on the technology of domestic defense. And although Mr. Bush spoke of the need for a strong NASA when he made stops near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida during the 2000 presidential campaign, he has made no major speeches about space during his time in the White House.

"So far, space program advocates say, the president's major involvement in NASA has been to crack down on billions of dollars of cost overruns in the expansion of the International Space Station now orbiting Earth."

That produced an official statement that Bush had too visited the space center as governor. Which touched off some Ari-grilling, as recounted by Washington Post columnist Al Kamen: (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A26760-2003Feb4.html)

"White House reporters asked Monday and spokesman Ari Fleischer said he understood Bush had. They doggedly persisted Tuesday aboard Air Force One.

"'The Texas staff all recalls a visit,' Fleischer said. 'I was asked to get the date. I am not able to find a date. And so I think right now it's somewhat murky.'"

Somewhat murky! We smell a cover-up!

"'With due respect, how could it be murky?' a reporter asked. 'How would you forget .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. whether or not you went to the Johnson Space Center?'

"Bush's Texas staff 'at the time remembered it,' Fleischer said, 'which is why I said it.' .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"'Has he ever seen a launch or a landing, and hasn't he ever been curious about a launch or a landing?' a reporter asked.

"'He very well may have been curious about a launch or a landing. I'm not aware if he has seen any,' Fleischer said.

"'Why not?'

"'I think there are many things that presidents would like to do, in the two-plus-one-month-years that he's been in office, he hasn't had an opportunity to do,' Fleischer said.

"Later yesterday, Fleischer told reporters: 'Upon further review, the play is reversed.' The Texas staff was wrong, and Bush did not visit the space center during the eight years he was governor."

The previous statement is inoperative.

ABC's Note (http://abcnews.go.com/sections/politics/DailyNews/TheNote.html) says the mini-tempest suggests the White House staff is "fearful of encouraging the image" that "Bush wasn't an activist, caring governor in Texas. And, it shows that they don't want Bush, arguably the nation's first cowboy president, to ever appear to be un-macho, and not supporting the space program is un-macho.

"And when they get caught making a mistake, their attitude is, 'well, let's just shut it down, we're not looking into this anymore,' and hoping everyone will move on. And the press largely has, at least until now.

"There are a lot of issues out there -- the war against terrorism, the possible war with Iraq, homeland security generally -- on which this President, because he has been trusted and liked, has largely been given a big pass on accountability. By any objective standard, that 'pass' has been more than Clinton or Gore got, or would have gotten."

Umm .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. guess who else hasn't been visiting the Johnson Space Center much?

"Nowadays," writes Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/printedition/calendar/la-et-rutten5feb05001443,0,7111247.story?coll=la%2Dheadlines%2Dcalendar) columnist Tim Rutten, "the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and its manned space program are on the spotty part of the media spectrum. In the 1960s, NASA was a prized assignment on quality newspapers and magazines and, particularly, on television.

"Today, neither the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post nor the Wall Street Journal has a reporter assigned to cover the space program exclusively. All have made the topic one of those assigned to science or aerospace writers with many other responsibilities. Neither ABC, CBS nor NBC has a single correspondent whose responsibilities include covering NASA. CNN has a 'space correspondent,' Miles O'Brien, but only one-tenth of his on-camera appearances over the last year have involved NASA. Fox, according to a spokesman, does not cover the space program on a regular basis.

"The only news organizations with full-time space program reporters are the Houston Chronicle and the Orlando Sentinel, whose circulation areas include the Johnson and Kennedy space centers.

"Partly, of course, this is because manned space flight in the form of the shuttle program -- while of incontestable value -- amounts in a certain sense to paddling around in the interplanetary shallows. Near-Earth exploration simply lacks the cachet of moon flights and expeditions to Mars."

Perhaps the press should be careful about casting stones here.

Lots of reaction to Colin Powell's hour-long slide show to the U.N. yesterday. Here's the New York Times (http://nytimes.com/2003/02/06/international/middleeast/06ASSE.html) take:

"To convince allied nations that Saddam Hussein is trying to deceive United Nations weapon inspectors, the Bush administration today applied a tried-and-true strategy: it invoked the Powell doctrine.

"When he was the United States' top military man, Gen. Colin L. Powell was best known for his doctrine of using overwhelming force. As the United States top diplomat, Secretary of State Powell today sought to overwhelm the critics with evidence, some new, some less so.

"Without a smoking gun to demonstrate that Iraq is developing weapons of mass destruction, Mr. Powell's strategy was to make as comprehensive and detailed case as he could to demonstrate a pattern of Iraqi deceit. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"The Secretary offered much evidence that Iraq has weapons programs to hide, the primary justification for the administration's contention that military action will almost certainly be necessary to enforce the United Nations demands that Iraq disarm. But Mr. Powell did not appear to make an airtight case that the Saddam Hussein regime is plotting with Al Qaeda to attack the United States and its allies, a main argument for the Bush Administration's contention that the Iraqi threat is so urgent that a potential military campaign cannot be delayed."

USA Today (http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/iraq/2003-02-05-domestic-reaction-usat_x.htm) finds some lawmakers falling into line:

"On Capitol Hill, members of Congress in both parties used words like 'compelling' to describe the presentation. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who had criticized Bush for moving too quickly to take on Iraq, now sounded convinced. 'I no longer think that inspections are going to work,' she said.

"Most of the Democrats who are seeking the presidential nomination also had words of praise. 'Patience is a virtue, but too much patience with dangerous lawlessness is a vice,' said Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., who has long urged tough U.S. policy toward Saddam.

"But another presidential aspirant, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, said the administration was 'pursuing the wrong war.' Dean, who has criticized the move toward military action, said, 'Terrorism around the globe is a far greater danger to the United States than Iraq.'

"Several key senators said the president still needs to do more to explain to Americans the war's likely aftermath."

What about the pundits? Slate's (http://slate.msn.com/id/2078196/) Fred Kaplan is sold:

"Secretary of State Colin Powell's briefing to the U.N. Security Council was far more powerful than anyone had predicted. Not all his points were equally compelling: Some, as he admitted, were open to interpretation; some were vaguely sourced (if understandably so). But contrary to his own (clearly low-balling) remarks of recent days, Powell did produce the proverbial 'smoking gun.' And, while his evidence may not have been quite as shattering as Adlai Stevenson's U-2 photos of Soviet missiles in Cuba, it came remarkably close--so much so that, if the Security Council does not now take action against Iraq, it might as well disband."

But Salon's (http://salon.com/opinion/conason/2003/02/05/bush/index.html) Joe Conason, though, is unconvinced:

"What was most noticeably absent from Powell's presentation was any evidence that Iraq is a present threat to its neighbors or any other nation -- and thus must be invaded and subdued immediately. He showed that Saddam has sought an arsenal of mass destruction, and that his regime is still resisting disarmament. But he inadvertently made some arguments for continued inspections backed by force, rather than war. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Nothing Powell said proved that war is necessary now. He didn't justify the potential deaths of thousands of people and the unforeseeable dangers of an invasion by the U.S. and its coalition. He didn't convince the Security Council to change course in support of immediate war. What he did prove is that inspections ought to continue and intensify -- and if Iraq tries to frustrate them as the regime did in 1998, there will still be plenty of time for military action."

New York Post (http://www.nypost.com/commentary/68594.htm) columnist Steve Dunleavy finds an unusual witness to evaluate Powell's audience:

"Radioactive with rage is the only way I can describe my feeling as I sat in the castle of consummate cowards -- watching a tough New Yorker who fought battles around the world return to his hometown with his hat in his hand. Secretary of State Colin Powell was at the United Nations to try to convince that coven of curs that Saddam Hussein really is a bad guy.

"Colin Powell knows a bad guy when he sees one. He grew up in Harlem and The Bronx. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"If you don't think I know what goes on in that brothel on the East River, ask a real expert. 'That is where I got my start,' said Xaviera Hollander, a k a the Happy Hooker. 'I did a lot of business there.'"

In the flap over affirmative action, the Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.com/news/custom/timespoll/la-na-poll6feb06,0,6999962.story?coll=la%2Dhome%2Dheadlines) finds the White House has strong support:

"By a majority of more than 2 to 1, Americans approve of President Bush's call to strike down a race-based admissions policy at the University of Michigan and say that students should be judged only on their academic records, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll.

"But when given a possible alternative, the respondents say they would support an affirmative-action policy that gives a preference to individuals who come from an economically disadvantaged background, regardless of their race, ethnicity or gender. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"When asked whether they approved or disapproved of Bush's opposition to the University of Michigan's 'racial preference admissions program,' 55 percent said they approved of the president's position and 27 percent disapproved. Opposition to race-based admissions was highest among the youngest respondents and declined steadily among those who were older.

"About two-thirds of those ages 18-29, or 67 percent, said they agreed with Bush's stand against the university, while 22 percent were opposed to the administration's position. Those over age 65 were more closely split, with 45 percent agreeing with Bush and 34 percent disagreeing.

"Of the respondents who identified themselves as Democrats, 44 percent approved of Bush's position and 39 percent were opposed, while Republicans approved by a 7-1 majority."

John Kerry's Jewish saga continues, with this Boston Globe (http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/036/nation/On_campaign_trail_Kerry_embraces_his_Jewish_roots+.shtml) report from Boca Raton:

"The conventional wisdom holds that this is Joe Lieberman territory, a stronghold of Democratic Jewish support for the Orthodox presidential candidate. But Senator John F. Kerry came here earlier this week and, in front of a Jewish audience, delivered a surprise.

"After a familiar monologue about his commitment to Israel, Kerry paused, then dramatically revealed that he has a personal reason to care about the Jewish state: both his paternal grandparents were Jewish, and had changed their name from Kohn in 1902.

"He described having a 'dramatic feeling of wow, lightbulb,' when he was informed of the extent of his Jewish heritage just weeks earlier by a reporter from the Globe. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. Never in his 21-year career in public life has Kerry gone out of his way to explain his complex roots -- even though he discovered some 15 years ago that his paternal grandmother was Jewish, a point he has mentioned only occasionally in public."

Next thing you know he'll be holding a bagels-and-lox rally.

The New Republic (http://www.tnr.com/etc.mhtml) has some thoughts about the importance of being (sorta) Jewish in the wake of ancestral discoveries by Kerry and Wesley Clark and Howard Dean talking about his Jewish wife:

"Obviously Lieberman's religion isn't much of an issue one way or the other--as its virtual non-impact on the 2000 campaign demonstrates. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

But even if the effect is exceedingly marginal, isn't it possible that these revelations actually help Lieberman? Since Lieberman is the only Democratic candidate who consistently wears his religion on his sleeve, he'll continue to be the only one who benefits from having a connection with religious voters (of all faiths). At the same time, though, maybe the fact that all these candidates are turning out to have Jewish grandparents and wives 'normalizes' Lieberman in the eyes of that very small segment of Americans who actually do have reservations--perhaps reservations they're not even fully conscious of--about pulling the lever for a Jewish candidate.

"While we're on the subject, the one person who seems to be unambiguously hurt by revelations of John Kerry's Jewish heritage is John Kerry. And the reason has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. As this Boston Globe (http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/035/oped/Who_is_John_Kerry+.shtml) article suggests, Kerry's evasiveness on the issue 'mirrors a larger confusion about his essence: Who is he? What does he believe in? Whether the issue is war with Iraq or support for affirmative action, his political core is hard to pin down, perhaps as difficult as his personal roots.' Talk about becoming a prisoner of your own media narrative."

No sooner did we finish writing about a Clinton comeback yesterday than we got word of a big magazine interview, part of which is picked up by the Raleigh News & Observer(http://www.newsobserver.com/edwards/):

"The March issue of The Atlantic Monthly features a lengthy piece on Bill Clinton, in which the former president offers his take on Sen. John Edwards' presidential candidacy. Here's an excerpt on what Clinton has to say about Edwards on television, including an appearance on 'Meet the Press,' which drew criticism from political pundits:

"'I never saw the 'Meet the Press' program. But way before that appearance, when [Edwards] was making all these other television appearances, he called me. I told him: John, you're great on TV. You make a great talk. You can talk an owl out of a tree. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"'So I told him, months before that 'Meet the Press' thing, that he'd been on TV enough to be hot. Which was good. But if I were in his position, I'd spend lots of time trying to think things through.'"

Bill Clinton, media consultant.