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John Fitzgerald Bush? Not Quite

As some people have pointed out, there are some interesting parallels between President John F. Kennedy and current President George W. Bush.

While imperfect, the analogy is indeed apt in many ways.

Both were ardent tax cutters. Both were scions of a wealthy aristocratic New England family.

Both were elected in a year ending in "0" (1960 and 2000). Both won in a very close, controversial and disputed race (it's still believed by many that there was massive vote fraud in Chicago, giving Kennedy Illinois and the presidency). In so doing, both retook the White House from eight years of a previous popular president of the opposite party, against whose vice president they ran and won (Eisenhower and Nixon for Kennedy, Clinton and Gore for Bush). Both were elected a few years after their party took over the Congress from their rival party, and (while this one hasn't yet been borne out for Mr. Bush, it's looking increasing likely) both led a realignment that made their party the national majority for years to come.

Interestingly enough, there may soon be another parallel.

Kennedy embarked the nation on our first (though hopefully not last) grand expedition to another world--earth's moon, in a history-making speech in the first few months of his young presidency.

While President Bush may be a little late to the table in terms of timing (three years into his presidency), there are rumors that he is about to make a similar announcement--perhaps to go back to the moon, hopefully with a program less ephemeral than Apollo was or even, in the hopes of some, to Mars.

If he does this with vigor and commitment, many will indeed point out this new, exciting similarity to the JFK presidency--a president who boldly set his nation off into the cosmos, a man of vision who saw mankind's destiny in the stars, who was willing to expend vital political capital to ensure a posterity for humanity off the planet as well as on, initiating a future in which man would go "where no man had gone before."

The only problem with this parallel is that it would be a false one, because in fact Jack Kennedy was none of those things. Like many of the myths of Camelot, the notion of Kennedy as space visionary is a sham.

The charming youthful president with the beautiful and cultured wife was in fact a womanizer who hung out with mobster molls and prostitutes. The vigorous sailor and touch football athlete at Hyannisport was in fact often bed ridden and perhaps addicted to pain medication from back injuries. The hero of the Cuban missile crisis put the nation's security at risk by exposing himself to blackmail.

It's now well established that Kennedy never cared about space per se. What he cared about was beating the Russians to the moon, for its symbolic value. From White House tapes, in a conversation with then-NASA administrator James Webb in late November, 1962 (almost exactly forty one years ago), he said:

"Everything that we do should be tied into getting on to the moon ahead of the Russians. We ought to get it really clear that the policy ought to be that this is the top priority program of the agency and one... of the top priorities of the United States government," he said.

"Otherwise we shouldn't be spending this kind of money, because I am not that interested in space," Kennedy said. "I think it's good. I think we ought to know about it.

"But we're talking about fantastic expenditures," Kennedy said. "We've wrecked our budget, and all these other domestic programs, and the only justification for it, in my opinion, is to do it in the time element I am asking."

This was in response to a plea by Webb to be allowed to give ample resources to other space exploration activities besides Apollo.

No president has ever been a true visionary of space, a Thomas Jefferson of the high frontier. Johnson carried on the Apollo program from Kennedy, but that was partly out of respect for a martyred president, partly out of the same motivation to gain some propaganda advantage over the Soviets in the Cold War, and partly out of a desire to industrialize the south, but none of these reasons were sufficient to keep him from making the decision to end the program in 1967, after it became clear that we were going to win the race by the end of the decade. It continued to fly through 1972, but no new lunar hardware was built.

Nixon was often blamed for the end of Apollo, but he was guilty only of failing to reverse the Johnson administration's decision. Jimmy Carter had no interest in it, and his vice president, Walter Mondale, tried repeatedly to kill the Space Shuttle when he was a Senator in the 1970s.

Republicans, in fact, at least since Reagan (who initiated the space station program in 1984), have been more supportive of visionary space initiatives. The current President's father announced a new space exploration initiative in July of 1989, but a recalcitrant Congress, in combination with an overambitious NASA, conspired to kill it.

So if, in fact, the current president Bush makes an announcement, whether on December 17th, the hundredth anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight (as is rumored) or in January in the State of the Union address, and it is truly meant to be a long-duration activity, rather than a war by peaceful means (it's hard to imagine us being in a space race with Al Qaeda), it will actually be a first.

If indeed President Bush turns out to be a space visionary, it won't be another parallel with JFK--it will be actually be counterevidence against the analogy.

Of course, considering that this coming Saturday is the fortieth anniversary of the day that President Kennedy was cut down by an assassin's bullet in Dallas, Texas, with President Bush overseas in late November of the third year of his presidency, amidst hostile protestors marching in the streets chanting their irrational hatred of him, it should be our most fervent hope that he can avoid the most tragic parallel of all.

Posted by Rand Simberg at November 18, 2003 09:16 PM
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Good post.
I keep the Kenndey clip in question in heavy rotation on my MP3 player. A good remedy for 'man on a white horse' space policy delusions. (Although I wouldn't disagree with Kennedy's intent - I would take the carbohydrate rush of flags and footprints over the preemptive nuclear strike that many in the Pentagon of the time were pushing for anyday).

However - I thought you were down on grand expeditions - at least as a space priority. And I never though you would call the space station (even in its original form) a visionary exercise!

I also think if this adminstration does announce something it will owe much to trying to squeeze results out of a dazed but politically indestructable agency, and 27 electoral votes.

I would say that the "most tragic parallel" though may not have been dodged by this adminstration. That is, of course, having the hubris to starting a land war in Asia and then failing to fully commit to winning it.

Yeah - I know that Iraq is not Vietnam. Less catfish, for one. The nightlife of Baghdad, outside of Ramadan, is probably not a spot on Siagon, 1969. Probably an order of magnitude less causalities, on both sides once all is said and done. And of course, a hell of a lot more consequence if the United States loses this one.

...gets into asbastos suit...

Posted by Duncan Young at November 19, 2003 02:40 AM

Let's hope that last paragraph is another parallel that's not close... excellent post by the way!

Posted by Greeblie at November 19, 2003 06:10 AM

Even if Bush announces a "grand plan" for NASA, it won't make him a space visionary. He could, however, be a president that listened to the space visionaries.

Posted by James at November 19, 2003 02:04 PM visionaries.

Somehow, those two terms just dont fit in the same paragraph. They never have.

Posted by at November 19, 2003 02:19 PM

In some ways I look forward to such an announcement. When I'm more depressed I wonder what good it will do.

Keith Cowing in his article about silence at a recent NASA meeting describes an agency that still has major problems. Dan Goldin -- and his myriad imitators -- did enormous damage to NASA. And, when you consider the problems NASA had before Goldin, you get a picture of an agency that might not be the least bit able to carry out any sort of grand Presidential initiative.

Cowing in his piece on silence describes his old group as people that were at least somewhat open and encouraging of independence. The culture he describes is one of spirited democratic cooperation, not one of subservience to the powers that be.

Today, however, it seems that kind of independence has been thoroughly strangled.

O'Keefe, in contrast to Goldin, seems like a good man. He also seems to be considerably saner than Goldin. Still, though, in nearly two years on the job, he seems to lead an agency that's become a place where silence is the norm.

What's more, I wonder how pervasive dysfunctional people have become and how entrenched they are. I know there are still people at NASA, both civil servant and contractor, who engage in delusional thinking.

O'Keefe apparently still has an enormous task in front of him. He must instill openness, honesty and respect for independence within NASA. Dysfunctional managers must be addressed in some fashion. Firing contractor management is possible, if awkward. Getting rid of counterproductive civil servants is much harder.

Finally, I hope Bush delays announcing any new proposals until Rutan successfully launches his Spaceship One or one of the other new upstarts has a real success. The real key to our future in space lies in making space something other than a hothouse plant sustained -- feebly -- by tax dollars.

Posted by Chuck Divine at November 19, 2003 02:28 PM

About that vision thing, WFTV in orlando, fl just had a spot about the orbital space plane. The animation they used looked like a DYNA-SOAR! Talk about a blast from the past.

Posted by bruce at November 19, 2003 03:32 PM

Great post, but I have a note to make. I completely agree that fraud most likely won Kennedy Illinois and Hawaii (where he won by 115 votes), but even with those two states going to Nixon, Kennedy would have carried the election 273-249, not lost it as you said.

Posted by CS at November 21, 2003 04:01 PM

I wouldn't be too quick to discount the "new space initiative as war by peaceful means" too soon. True, we're not going to be racing Al Qaeda to Mars, but there is a country that is VERY interested in space exploration for simialr strategic/nationalistic reasons that motivated the soviets: the Chinese.

Granted, if Bush announces such a program/vision in the imminent future, I sincerely doubt China will have been a consideration, but I would suspect it will become one within a decade at most.

Posted by Russell at November 21, 2003 04:46 PM

I keep hearing this soundbyte used as evixdence Kennedy did not trulysupport the space effort.

I think he was simply letting the air out of James Webb's tire to get the upper hand on him in the discussion by "Bursting his bubble".

Posted by Mike Puckett at November 21, 2003 07:01 PM

Sure, this would be fantastic if there was some magical exploration to Mars. It would be a historic moment for America, for the world and especially for Bush (and republicans). However, nobody has pointed out the obvious reason why this probably won't happen: how would we fund it? We are pretty much broke. Sure, the economy is improving, but we still have a record deficit and a HUGE energy bill and a HUGE medicare bill are on the verge of being passed...

Can anyone shed some light how we would pay for this?

Posted by Jettison at November 21, 2003 08:38 PM

And he would want to burst Webb's bubble because...?

Posted by Rand Simberg at November 21, 2003 08:41 PM

We could easily pay for it. NASA's budget is a trivial amount of money in the context of the federal budget. We could easily double it and it wouldn't even be noticed.

But people like ethanol subsidies better.

Posted by Rand Simberg at November 21, 2003 08:57 PM

Because Kennedy was telling Webb "You are going to do things MY way Biotch and I am not going to argue with you about it any more!"

Imaginary Quote

Posted by Mike Puckett at November 21, 2003 10:31 PM

Mmmm..... Ethanol.......(drool)

Posted by Homer Simpson at November 21, 2003 10:34 PM

Exactly, Mike. In other words, he was telling Webb that he wasn't going to get the space program that Webb wanted, which makes the point that Kennedy didn't care much about space. If he had, he'd have been more likely to say something like, "Jim, just between you and me, I share your passion for this, but there's no way we can get Congress to pay for it for pure science and exploration. A moon race to beat the Russians is all they'll buy."

I'm continually amazed by the denial on peoples' part about this. They just won't let go of the Camelot myth. Over the long term, when the baby boomers are gone, Kennedy will slip into the middle ranks of presidents in the views of most objective historians. He only has a high rating because of nostalgia, not because of any reality.

Posted by Rand Simberg at November 22, 2003 08:07 AM

For those interested in humanity moving from Earth on into the solar system, the announcement of a big new governmental space initiative of some sort should be dismaying, and counterproductive. Big government initiatives seldom take hold for the long term in an arena where knowledge and skills have to be advanced and marshalled. They are best for giveaways, where a number of "recipients" can come to expect a long term handout.

A good example of how humanity might make the jump is the current collection of unmanned orbital activities. We early on discovered that earth satellites could tell us what the weather was, and from that we developed a network of weather satellites. We noticed they could help with communications, and now we have a big constellation of communications satellites. We discovered they could help us figure out where we are here on the surface of the planet,and now we have a huge GPS industry. In all of these, there wasn't really a grand government plan, just things that happened initially in a smallish way, that were the right things for the right time. They made sense, and they took hold.

For people in space, the same principle probably hold. If somebody figured out how to set up a satellite fixit shop in orbit, there would soon be a few techs up there doing repairs. If somebody wanted to put some astronomical facilities on the moon (good shielding from earth, low gravity, solid ground, seismically quiet), there would be a few folks up there tending to the things. And so on. As these kinds of smallish activities continue and thrive, they evolve into a major human presence off-planet.

At this point, it is hard to say what people ought to be doing up there, but given the opportunity to get there in the first place, people will figure it out. It would just happen, in whatever way it makes sense to happen. Big government programs won't determine that. The most recent example of the effectiveness of government planning and control of big endeavors was the soviet union. It took several decades for the folly of that approach to become obvious to all. Trying to repeat that kind of philosophy to running enterprises in the arena of space is likely to have the same sorry ineffectiveness. The best thing the government can do is help develop the techniques for getting out there in the first place, better than we now can, and then just get out of the way.

Posted by John Barber at November 22, 2003 09:35 AM

You all can have Kennedy, and in fact I think many on the left would let you take him, at least metaphoricaly. I think Bush is Kennedy and Johnson rolled into one.

But Kennedy didn't lead to realignment, or rather, if he did it wasn't in the Democrats' favor. 1964 was the high watermark of Great Society liberalism, which would then be turned back in 5 of the next 6 elections (and 1976 was very close).

Kennedy came at the end of 30 years of dominance by the New Deal coalition. By the time his VP left office, that coalition was gone.

Posted by SamAm at November 22, 2003 01:20 PM

Well, the Dems managed to hold on to the House for another two and a half decades.

Posted by Rand Simberg at November 22, 2003 01:29 PM

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