The new president was lightly regarded. He was elected with less
than 50 percent of the vote, and many thought that only vote stealing
had gained him a narrow victory in the Electoral College over
the incumbent two-term vice president he ran against. And the
new president had no "coattails"; his party lost seats in Congress,
even as he eked out his own victory.
If that sounds a bit like the George W. Bush story in the 2000
election, it also describes John F. Kennedy in 1960.
So what did Kennedy do? Did he cringe and quake as he took office?
Of course not. Although he had no real mandate from the voters,
he acted as though he did, and so he created his own momentum
once in office. He set the energetic, full-speed-ahead tone in
his ringing "bear any burden" inaugural address, and then set
about "getting the country moving again." From the Bay of Pigs
invasion to the creation of the Peace Corps to new civil rights
legislation to a proposed big tax cut, some his new ideas were
good, and some not so good. But in less than three years in office,
JFK built the legend of "Camelot" that shines to this day.
Quite possibly, Kennedy's most enduring legacy, if not in the
next decade or even century, but over the next millennium, will
be the space program.
The Soviet Union had seized the space initiative in 1957 by orbiting
Sputnik. A Herblock cartoon in The Washington Post captured the
spirit of the day: it showed the septuagenarian President Eisenhower
sound asleep in his bed as Sputnik soared above him. That was
the time when many believed communism would indeed, as Nikita
Khrushchev predicted, "bury" capitalism.
Not long after Kennedy took office, on April 12, 1961, cosmonaut
Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space; he made a single orbit
around the earth aboard Vostok I. Less than a month later, astronaut
Alan Shepard made a 15-minute suborbital flight aboard Mercury
3. But even as the U.S. was clearly eating Russian space dust,
Kennedy had confidence that he and his fellow Americans would
prevail. In a speech to a special joint session of Congress on
May 25, 1961, he outlined "Project Apollo," declaring, "I believe
this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before
this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning
him safely to Earth. No single space project in this period will
be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range
exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive
The following year, in an address at Rice University, he argued
for space in even bolder terms: "Our leadership in science and
in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations
to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort,
to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men,
and to become the world's leading spacefaring nation."
And so what started out as a Cold War imperative became the beginning
of what will surely be an unfolding saga of human destiny. And
nobody cares anymore that the 1960 election was close, and maybe
Bush has a serious agenda, too, of course, even if the mostly
liberal media don't take it seriously. Tax rate reductions, the
partial privatization of Social Security, school choice, and faith-based
"charitable choice" are all worthy of serious consideration. On
the other hand, the next president seems to understand that he
will inevitably have to compromise. In his victory speech to the
Texas legislature on Dec. 13, he said plenty that would gladden
the hearts of New Democrats, and maybe even Old Democrats; the
new administration will, he said, "offer prescription drug benefits
to all our seniors" and "make all our public schools excellent."
The next day, House Speaker Dennis Hastert indicated his hesitation
over supply-side prescription of across-the-board tax rate cuts.
At least for the time being, American politics has crowded, or
collapsed, into the center. Six years after Newt Gingrich came
rampaging into power, dreaming his world-historical dreams of
radical restructuring of the federal government and the income
tax code, Republicans and Democrats now seem to agree that most
of the surplus should be devoted to more spending. And the American
people seem happy with that; the divisiveness of the five weeks
of post-election litigation should not obscure the reality that
on Nov. 7, the electorate voted virtually even-steven, leaving
both parties with a mandate to preserve the status quo.
So what does this augur for a Bush presidency? If the Texan is
content to simply go along with the drift of events, parceling
out the pork -- and the political credit -- he can probably, given
the strength of U.S. economic and diplomatic power, have a reasonably
successful term in office, maybe even two. Of course, so did such
mostly forgettable presidents as Grover Cleveland.
Is there a better path for Bush to take? Sure there is. If the
"vital center" isn't so vital, if the middle of the road is clogged
with middlers, then he could go end around, seeking political
"daylight" in the sunlit uplands of new ideas. He can do what
Kennedy did. He can fill up his administration with intellectuals
who will provide him with "vigah," even if the Congress stalls
his initiatives. And soon enough, such a brain trust would come
up with ideas and angles that would make an impression -- and make
Because while American politics may be dullsville, American life
is more interesting and stimulating than ever, especially in the
private sector, where the march of science and technology has
become a permanent sprint. And so if President Bush makes half
an effort, he will find it easy to import solutions that will
brighten his administration.
Some short-term opportunities for short-term "fixes" present
themselves. One example is election reform, not to be confused
with campaign finance reform. Before this election, how many Americans
knew that perhaps 1.5 percent of all ballots nationwide were rejected?
Yet if relatively simple technology -- of the sort that drives
ATMs, not to mention e-commerce -- could be brought to bear and
solve the ballot-counting problem, in a year or two the populace
might conclude that some good has come out of the whole Florida
As for the longer term, Bush might reasonably conclude that the
politics of the 21st century are going to be reshaped by the emerging
technologies of the Net, genetics, robotics, and nanonics. Some,
such as Gray Davis, the Democratic governor of California who
could well be a presidential candidate in 2004, are staking such
a claim for the future; Davis just announced a $300 million commitment
of Golden State funds to establish three new University of California
Others, such as Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, the
California computer colossus, argue that all these new technologies
are a huge danger. In a notorious essay in the April, 2000 issue
of Wired magazine, Joy wrote, "We are on the cusp of the further
perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads
well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed
to the nation states." Joy called for severe restrictions on the
future development of genetic, robotic, and nanonic technologies;
his argument has been taken up by many on the Green/Luddite left.
In other words, even if inside-the-Beltway politics is mostly
a dry rind, the outside-the-Beltway world is a juicy stake of
controversy. And President Bush, with his bully pulpit, could
be in the thick of every argument, even if he has little money
or power to throw around.
But here's another possibility: Bush could pick up on Kennedy's
greatest legacy, the space program. Why not? The space program
has mostly stagnated in the 30 years since the martyred president's
vision of a man on the moon was realized in 1969. Why not a man
on Mars? Why not a woman on Mars?
During the campaign, Bush said little about space. In October,
he put out a position paper that was imperceptibly different from
the Clintonian status quo; on the issue of Mars, for example,
he said, "I believe it is important that we continue to lay the
groundwork for long-term exploration of our neighboring planets
such as Mars by increasing our knowledge and experience of planetary
exploration via robots."
But a lot has changed in the past two months. Bush's presidency
is destined to begin under a Florida cloud, then it is his challenge
to react to new conditions and act accordingly. If he is stymied
on Capitol Hill, he can still go "outside the nine dots" of the
same-old same-old issues and engage the imagination of the young,
the hip, the technological, and even the apolitical. But to do
so, he will need the lift of a driving dream. He will need new
ideas that he can at least talk about, if not necessarily enact.
But if he talks about them enough, if he builds better arguments,
the world will beat a path to his door.
One such idea is space. Captain Kirk's words -- "space: the final
frontier" -- may be a cliche, but like many cliches, the words
are true. It's hard to imagine that a rich country, enjoying a
surplus, would not be imaginative enough to take the lead in expanding
the human horizon. And if Bush could take the lead, if he could
argue that space is good for the human spirit, good for the planetary
commonweal, and good for the human future in the event that Spaceship
Earth springs a leak, then he might well take his place among
the pantheon of explorer leaders, from Leif Eriksson to Henry
the Navigator to John F. Kennedy.
"Knowledge is power," said Francis Bacon. If Bush, like Kennedy,
can surround himself with the best and the brightest, he will
be on his way toward making his mark in history.
Copyright 2000, TECH CENTRAL