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Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is in a tough spot, but he’s his own best spokesman

It seems like every day, there's more bad news for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and the local, state and federal officials in charge as the Flint water crisis worsened.

A high-ranking federal official in charge of monitoring Michigan for the Environmental Protection Agency will resign following criticism that she was too slow to intervene on behalf of drinking water poisoned with lead in the hard-scrabble city. There may be a congressional hearing soon. One Flint-area state lawmaker claims he sent an email to Snyder saying that “the city of Flint stands on the precipice of civil unrest” that Snyder didn't include in his 270-some pages of emails he released Wednesday. (By way of explanation, Snyder's office told Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, the email went to the governor's general account for constituent communications.)

Through it all, Snyder has born the brunt of criticism in the local health crisis that has turned into a national scandal. But unlike many other politicians facing crises of leadership, Snyder may also be his own best counter-programming.

On Friday morning, Snyder appeared on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" from a still-dark Ann Arbor, Mich., to answer some tough and direct questions about it all -- basically why his government didn't act sooner.

There's no easy way to explain governmental failure, but the Republican governor elected in 2010 struck a delicate balance in the attempt: He came across as outraged yet clear-headed, as willingly shouldering responsibility for the problem yet confident he can fix it, as candid about government's failure yet not defensive about his role in it.

Take a look at the key moments that led up to Flint, a city of 90,000, getting stuck with contaminated water. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Quite frankly, Snyder didn't seem as if he were a politician trying to hide something, but rather a politician trying to fix something people in his administration messed up.

"This was a terrible tragedy," he said. "These people work for me. And that's why it was important to accept responsibility, and my focus is on fixing this problem."

Critics can make the case Snyder is pointing fingers at others while not doing all he can to be transparent. As we wrote Thursday, releasing his emails related to Flint probably won't have been enough to clear up concerns about what the governor and his top aides knew and when. The emails were a start rather than the end to questions, wrote the Detroit Free Press editorial board, which called on Snyder to release his aides' emails as well. (Snyder said earlier in the week he won't, calling those emails "private.")

[How much trouble is Rick Snyder in over Flint?]

But while his emails didn't help un-muddy things, a few minutes talking on TV may have. To the best that he could, Snyder was able to answer some of the nation's most basic questions about this complicated, bureaucratic and winding drama. (Whether the residents of Michigan believe him is another story, and one that his political career ultimately rests on.)

Basically, Snyder indicated Friday morning that for the past year and a half or so, health safety experts didn't see or understand what was wrong with Flint's water, despite residents' complaints about it. Those people didn't alert the heads of two state departments watching over water safety, who in turn didn't alert the governor. It wasn't until individual researchers made news this fall for their findings of untreated water from Flint River corroding lead in old city pipes that the governor says he found out what had happened.

[This is how toxic Flint's water really is]

"We took action the next day," Snyder said on "Morning Joe," adding he'll continue to take action -- including a top-to-bottom review of state government protocols for this sort of thing -- until the day he leaves office, in 2019. (Snyder is term-limited and can't seek reelection.)

What's more, the story Snyder shared Friday morning on national television is consistent with what he's been saying in Michigan all along: People below him messed up, and as soon as he found out, he got mad and took action.

It remains to be seen whether Snyder's explanation is enough to repair the people of Flint's understandably damaged trust in whether government can provide them basic services without poisoning them -- and then listen to them when they say there's a problem.

But at the very least, the articulate governor isn't making things worse for himself. That's a lot more than many other politicians in similar crises can say.

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