Friday, January 28, 2011

I Touch the Future

Judith Resnik and Christa McAuliffe, Challenger astronauts

I was literally in the air, along the same U.S. East Coast, when Challenger fell from the sky. When I landed in Portland, Maine, I was met by grim faced strangers who told me. They were my hosts for a speaking engagement. By the time I was in my hotel room, the television was covering the story, and reflecting the shock. Even by 1986, a space shuttle flight was fairly routine. When my hosts told me "the shuttle" had exploded, at first I thought it was the New York-to-Washington airplane shuttle. I'm sure that only added to the shock. Something that was so normal now--yet still so dangerous. Yet in the hours and days that followed, we reflected again on the miracle of this, of humans exploring space, and of the kind of people who were taking up that challenge.

Today NASA marked 25 years since the January 28, 1986 loss of Challenger and its seven astronauts. Seven was the total number of the original astronauts of the Mercury program, several of whom would continue through Gemini and Apollo, and would make it to the moon. One of them, Virgil Grissom, the second American in space, died in the only previous fatal accident of the space program. But that had happened on the launch pad. The Challenger seven were the first to be lost in flight--though they hadn't even yet reached beyond the atmosphere. The disaster began little more than a minute after liftoff.

What America learned that week was how different this crew was from those original astronauts. The original seven had been military, fighter jocks and test pilots. They were all male and white. This crew had a pilot that fit that profile--Dick Scobee, flight captain. But it also had Judith Resnik, the second American woman and first Jewish American in space; Ronald McNair, the second African American; and Ellison Onizuka, the first Asian American in space.

And Christa McAuliffe, a civilian, the star of the mission as the "first teacher in space." She brought a lot of attention to this flight, and so a lot of school children were watching. For them and the many more who saw the footage later, this became one of those anchoring events of a lifetime. (Though there were and remain misconceptions about what happened and why.) It was worst for the children in her New Hampshire school, not all that far from Portland. This day has special meaning for them.

For awhile afterwards, Christa McAuliffe's sacrifice elevated the role of teacher in the national consciousness. Her words "I touch the future--I teach" became a bumper sticker, and are still famous and inspirational. They should be a national guide.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

We Do Green Things: Followups on the Speech

Responses to President Obama's State of the Union by professional commentators and online bloviators were mostly predictable. If Obama didn't talk at length or at least prominently mention the issue they consider absolutely the most important (or are paid to represent it that way), they call the speech disappointing or a failure.

That would include Joseph Romm at Climate Progress who has already boxed himself in by declaring this a failed presidency months ago. Hard to up the rhetoric from there, but he tried. He's upset because Obama didn't talk about the Climate Crisis. And it's true that he didn't. One can guess by this and other evidence that the Obama White House has concluded that talking directly about global heating does no good, but that promoting policies that address the Climate Crisis--especially green energy--is the better approach. Indeed his speech pinned major economic hopes on America being a leader in green energy, and he followed that up today with a visit to a plant in Wisconsin that makes solar and other clean energy technology.

So green energy advocates are fairly happy, and at least one commentator saw the Climate Crisis connection. There may yet be a moment when Obama can effectively make the kind of call to arms that Romm demands and the situation merits. I have to guess that he doesn't see this moment as allowing for effectiveness by directly confronting the issue. In terms of congressional votes for cap and trade and so on, he's certainly right--they aren't there, and the Rabid Right is spoiling for a fight on the Climate Crisis. Obama may believe that his combination of optimistic "we do big things" American can-do spirit and economically-inspired fear of losing out to China etc. in clean energy tech will have a better chance of motivating actual change. With money behind it.

This really is the heart of the speech, and I'm a little surprised that few today seemed even to see it, or understand it, especially since it was so effective--with such clear approval among those who watched it. The need to act is wrapped in a strong argument for government action as well as business innovation, and that I still believe is the message that will resonate: "We do big things."

Three additional points centered on the energy/education/infrastructure emphasis of the speech. Obama going to a green energy manufacturer today is getting some media attention, but it's hardly the first time he's done this. He's followed up other speeches with such a visit. They've just been ignored. But as Obama said at his most recent press conference, he is persistent.

Second, after noting the media and blogosphere responses today, I admire even more Obama's ability to block out the insider noise and see things from other points of view--of people out in the country, of people in the world, and of history and the future. That he apparently pays more attention to those ten letters from citizens he reads every night than the nonsense on Daily Kos is all to his credit, but it can't be easy. Well, on the other hand, maybe it can.

Third point, and I may be the first to make this one: I see in this address the influence already of General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt, who he appointed head of the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness last week. Apart from whatever the facts are concerning his stewardship at GE, a lot of the points President Obama made are the kind of points that I heard Immelt make, for example in a conversation with Charlie Rose. He's an advocate for clean energy, more attention to research and innovation, manufacturing rather than just services, more American exports, fixing health care, and infrastructure. He claims (though critics dispute this) that he's bringing jobs back to America. Immelt has been a member of that Council for the past two years, so it's not like he's a sudden new voice being heard in the White House. But he's a bigger voice now, and I think we heard it--or echoes of it--in the State of the Union.

To return for a moment to the Climate Crisis, I would prefer that President Obama address this issue with all the rhetorical power at his command. He may need an occasion, or he may need to seize one. I wonder if he has fully appreciated or accepted the implications of recent science, and I am troubled by the resignation of his chief climate advisor Carol Browner. But it's not clear to me--and apparently not clear to the President--what practical effect this would have right now, given the politics. Cap and trade may be dead as the preferred mechanism to deal with that aspect. There may have to be another.

Instead of alienating supporters of the best hope you've got in Washington, Bill McKibben is a strong voice for building citizen and community advocacy, the way Martin Luther King, Jr. and others built the Civil Rights movement and both forced it onto the national agenda, and made it politically possible for JFK to address it and propose legislation with some chance of passage, even though he didn't live to see it pass. It's unfortunately still hearts and minds time on this issue. Why that may be will be the subject of future posts.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"The future is not a gift: it is an achievement. Every generation helps make its own future. This is the essential challenge of the present."

Robert F. Kennedy, Seattle World's Fair, August 7, 1962. Quoted in part in President Obama's State of the Union.

Winning the Future: "We Do Big Things"

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama described his agenda for winning the future, with a reasonable tone and a set of convincing arguments. Convincing enough to win overwhelming approval for his speech in the first two polls, including an approval in the CBS poll of 92%.

The President made "winning the future" a refrain as well as a theme:

"The future is ours to win. But to get there, we can't just stand still. As Robert Kennedy told us, "The future is not a gift. It is an achievement." Sustaining the American Dream has never been about standing pat. It has required each generation to sacrifice, and struggle, and meet the demands of a new age.

Now it's our turn. We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. We have to make America the best place on Earth to do business. We need to take responsibility for our deficit, and reform our government. That's how our people will prosper. That's how we'll win the future. And tonight, I'd like to talk about how we get there."

In support of it, he used two other notable refrains. He talked about unity as a necessity ("What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow...We will move forward together, or not at all - for the challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics.") But he didn't describe a timid agenda, a few minor or meaningless areas of agreement. He talked about major initiatives, with large goals--in education, rebuilding American infrastructure, and innovation, particularly by aggressively growing a green economy, to create jobs and make America competitive in a world of real economic competition, especially in these areas of the rapidly onrushing economy of the future.

He made his arguments in terms that were easy to understand, sometimes by example or the American context, but with the sense that this was a reasonable course, a common sense approach. That was supported by his second refrain: "It makes no sense":

"Today, there are hundreds of thousands of students excelling in our schools who are not American citizens. Some are the children of undocumented workers, who had nothing to do with the actions of their parents. They grew up as Americans and pledge allegiance to our flag, and yet live every day with the threat of deportation. Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense."

And later...

"Over the years, a parade of lobbyists has rigged the tax code to benefit particular companies and industries. Those with accountants or lawyers to work the system can end up paying no taxes at all. But all the rest are hit with one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world. It makes no sense, and it has to change."

These relatively small and specific examples are politically contentious, which illustrates how warped our political dialogue is. But the common sense of them transfers to the rest of his agenda, even when it is not so modest. And that involves the third refrain: "We do big things."

The President had talked about investing in innovation, renewing infrastructure, improving education, streamlinging and modernizing the federal government. He said we have stopped the bleeding in our economy and now "We are poised for progress." He reminded everyone that these proposals were not out of the ordinary in American history, especially of the past century, when Republican and Democratic administrations invested heavily in innovation, infrastructure and education. He specifically evoked the 1950s by asserting that "This is our Sputnik moment," the moment when we respond to the challenges of innovation or face falling behind other powers in the world.

But with a final example that married innovation and compassion in a characteristically American way, with the small Pennsylvania company that quickly invented the technology and techniques to free the buried miners in Chile. President Obama ended his State of the Union with this:

"Later, one of his employees said of the rescue, "We proved that Center Rock is a little company, but we do big things."

We do big things.

From the earliest days of our founding, America has been the story of ordinary people who dare to dream. That's how we win the future.

We are a nation that says, "I might not have a lot of money, but I have this great idea for a new company. I might not come from a family of college graduates, but I will be the first to get my degree. I might not know those people in trouble, but I think I can help them, and I need to try. I'm not sure how we'll reach that better place beyond the horizon, but I know we'll get there. I know we will."

We do big things.

The idea of America endures. Our destiny remains our choice. And tonight, more than two centuries later, it is because of our people that our future is hopeful, our journey goes forward, and the state of our union is strong."

UPDATE: I swear to you this is true. I had just finished this entry when I checked my email. I had one new message, from Barack Obama. The title line: We Do Big Things.

Astronaut Mark Kelly watching President Obama's State of the Union address, as he holds the hand of his wife, Gabby Giffords, currently undergoing rehabilitation and further treatment in Houston. The President mentioned Rep. Giffords early in his address, and members of Congress left an empty chair in the chamber in her honor.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Emerson for the Day

"The metamorphosis of nature shows itself in nothing more than this; that there is no word in our language that cannot become typical to us of nature by giving it emphasis. The world is a dancer: it is a Rosary; it is a torrent; it is a Boat: a Mist, a Spider's Snare; it is what you will; and the metaphor will hold...Swifter than light the World transforms itself into that thing you name."


Short Stuff

A video distributed to Obama supporters provides a preview of the President's upcoming State of the Union. The theme appears to be Winning the Future. Captain Future approves.

Polls are about unanimous now that President Obama's approval ratings have jumped markedly higher. Republicans and the GOPer Congress are going the other way.

Westerner Timothy Egan doesn't buy the Rabid Right's association of freedom with gunslinging.

The 50th anniversary of the JFK Inaugural prompted this detailed reconstruction of that day in Vanity Fair, and E. J. Dionne's recollection and evaluation of the Inaugural Address. So let us begin the reevaluations and celebrations of various milestones of the Kennedy years, aided now by the newly completed and now accessible digital archive of the Kennedy administration at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library site.