Presidents look to heavens in quest for political boost

Bush plans echo those of JFK, Nixon, Reagan

January 10, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Plans for exploring space can stir a nation's imagination and swell its pride. President John F. Kennedy learned that in 1961, when he summoned America's astronauts to reach the moon by the end of the decade, infusing a sense of purpose and optimism in citizens living in Cold War fear.

Next week, when President Bush is expected to announce that he wants to return man to the moon and land astronauts on Mars, he will be acting out of a similar belief: that wartime Americans are hungry for an emotional rallying cry, just more than two years after the deadliest terrorist attack in their history.

Unveiling a new space initiative has been a potent political tool for presidents - particularly before a re-election bid, when they hope to appear forward-looking. For Bush, whose aides have vowed to take his agenda beyond jobs and terrorism, an ambitious new space mission could help him craft an image as a bold visionary.

At the same time, Bush's proposal stands to please voters in politically crucial Florida, the home of Cape Canaveral and a state that Bush won by just over 500 votes in 2000, sealing his razor-thin election victory.

Yet there are obstacles. Bush's critics, even some Republicans, are already suggesting that costly and unpredictable ventures into space - no matter how imaginative - are unwise, even irresponsible, in times like these, when America faces soaring budget deficits and needs money and manpower to guard against terrorism.

Standing on North Carolina's Outer Banks last month to celebrate the nation's first manned flight by the Wright brothers, Bush hinted at a determination to lay out new goals for space. He declared that America has "excelled in every area of aviation and space travel," and "by our skill and daring, we will continue to lead the world in flight."

Part of the culture

In calling for new manned missions to the moon and to Mars, Bush hopes to tap a sense of excitement about exploration that has long been a part of American culture. In 1961, Kennedy successfully lobbied for a lunar mission, which reached the moon in 1969, by telling Congress that "it will not be one man going to the moon." Rather, Kennedy said, "it will be an entire nation."

Indeed, scholars see a reflection of the longtime American impulse to venture into uncharted terrain.

"Going into space is such an easy story to tell in American culture, a familiar story that does not need to be explained," said Howard McCurdy, a professor of public administration at American University and author of several books on NASA. "The story is the Lewis and Clark exploration, or it's the Gold Rush in California. What was Han Solo's entrance in Star Wars? A western saloon."

McCurdy likened Bush to Kennedy, saying both believe that they could lift spirits with plans for a daring space odyssey at a time of fear and dangers from abroad. But McCurdy noted that the comparison is imperfect. In the tense Cold War with the Soviets, one of Kennedy's key arguments for a lunar mission was to show that America's technological prowess was superior. The nation's enemies today are not intimidated by U.S. technology.

"I don't think Osama bin Laden is going to be that impressed," McCurdy said, "by the U.S. going to the moon."

Bush's proposal will face two political tests. The first will be whether Americans embrace his idea and, as Bush aides hope, regard it as evidence of a lavishly ambitious vision for the nation. The second, more long-term test will be whether Bush, and whatever political capital he chooses to spend, can persuade Congress to appropriate money to even begin the process toward a new lunar or Mars mission.

Bush has little to lose

Analysts say the contentious debates over money will likely wait until after the presidential election. That would mean that Bush could reap political benefit in the meantime, whether astronauts lift off or not.

"I don't think he has a lot to lose," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution.

It is a way, Hess suggested, for Bush to avoid one of the pitfalls that helped doom his father's 1992 re-election bid - a perception that he was a leader who lacked bold thinking.

"This is going to tell us something about George W. Bush - that he is willing to think big ideas," Hess said. "The skepticism that is going to come - that he is only doing this for political reasons, or that it's all cotton-candy talk and will never really happen - are just not the kinds of political arguments that stick to people's ribs."

Other presidents have tried to use space announcements to project an image of a visionary - two of them, not coincidentally, in January of their re-election years. In 1972, Richard M. Nixon proposed the space shuttle program. In 1984, Ronald Reagan called for an international space station.

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