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After Tight Race, Bush Should Race to Space Like JFK

December 18, 2000 |
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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 to accomplish."

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 even stolen.

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 a difference.

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 Fiasco.

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 technology centers.

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.

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