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Government Bears the Brunt of Anthrax Confusion

As concerns about anthrax grow so does the mystery about the disease. While health officials try to calm the public, the Bush administration is catching heat for putting out messages that some say are only adding to the mystery. CBS correspondent Eric Engberg explains.

To a public understandably wanting instant answers about the anthrax threat, the message from the government has at times seemed mixed, or, worse, confusing.

"It appears this is just an isolated case," said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson in the early days of the crisis.

And then a few days ago came this warning from Postmaster General John Potter, "There are no guarantees that the mail is safe."

It is a crisis like none before--in part because it involves many different government agencies--everything from public health to law enforcement agencies, with different cultures and even different languages. Michael Deaver, who fashioned President Reagan's communications strategy, says that means the administration needs to centralize control of statements on anthrax.

"So, somebody at some point at a higher level in this administration needs to provide discipline and say it all goes through here, and you don't say anything unless it's cleared from one office," says Deaver.

Up to now the messengers have been varied and mainly political. Old Washington hands say that should change--noting that medical doctors are comfortable telling patients they don't have all the answers while politicians shrink from such candor.

Spinmeister David Gergen says, "We need somebody in the government now who can be the national doctor, someone who can help us think this through and be with us and has a bedside manner and helps the country get through this."

Someone like former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who helped the nation understand the crisis of AIDS. Gergen, who worked in the Reagan and Clinton White Houses, says time is of the essence in eliminating misunderstandings and misstatements on anthrax.

"If confidence crumbles in the government, if it collapses in the government, that's going to totally undermine our war effort. These two things are interlocked," says Gergen. "So it's really important that on the domestic side they shore this up and begin communicating in a way that wins the continuing support of the public."

Veterans of past crises note that the American people don't panic and have a strong bias toward supporting their governmental leaders, but only when they believe they are being told the straight story.

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