Richard Reeves

A President of Big Ideas

WASHINGTON -- The creative political types at the White House, a euphemism for Karl Rove, have apparently suggested to President Bush that now that he has gone to Baghdad, it may be time to go to the moon -- again. I happen to know many people who think that might be a great idea, depending on whether or not our leader has a better exit strategy than he has in Iraq.

"White House Considers 'Big' New Initiatives" was the Washington Post headline Friday on a story attributed to "administration officials." Well, I'm all for whatever they decide. I like big, I like initiative, and I generally resent the short shrift usually given science and technology by big-thinking politicians and political thinkers.

As a pro-science guy -- my college degree is in mechanical engineering -- I am constantly angered by politicians who would holler bloody evil at burners of books of poetry but think nothing of demanding bans on research or innovation into scientific subjects, from space exploration to genetics or evolution.

The moon idea may be a bit old, and it was never great science. But it was certainly great politics and spectacle during the Cold War, when most of the world believed the Soviet Union was winning "the space race." Going to the moon, the challenge thrown down to the nation and the world by President Kennedy, was always more about politics than science, as Kennedy explained to a reluctant James Webb, the director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration:

"The Soviet Union has made this a test of systems. ... Everything we do ought to be really tied into getting to the moon ahead of the Russians. ... Otherwise we shouldn't be spending this kind of money because I'm not interested in space. ... The only justification for it, in my opinion, is because we hope to beat them and demonstrate that starting behind as we did by a couple of years, by God, we passed 'em."

A tape of that conversation on Nov. 21, 1962, can be heard at the Kennedy Library in Boston. Presidential libraries are, by the way, filled with such material because amazing numbers of intrepid Americans with big ideas find a way to reach presidents. In the Reagan Library near Los Angeles, you can find early stirrings of the idea called "Star Wars," the Strategic Defense Initiative.

(You can also find the correspondence between President Reagan and a western politician with important Republican connections who had a big idea to show that Reagan was a man of the people. He wanted Ron and Nancy to hold a Tupperware party in the White House -- and, by the way, his wife was the biggest Tupperware dealer in Oregon.)

Now, according to the Post and other sources, this White House and an interagency group have been working on interplanetary and space travel ideas since the summer. Other big government ideas being explored include crusades against childhood hunger, childhood illnesses and symptoms of aging. It's hard to be against all that, even in an administration determined to privatize public health care and such. After all, it could be argued that government public health programs, beginning with sanitation measures and inspections, were the single most important advances of the 20th century.

The big idea of big ideas is to make President Bush look decisive. I would have thought that matter was decided, even if you hate some of his decisions. I remember the first time I saw Bush in action before he was president. He could not remember the name of someone he said he had worked closely with, and as his audience held its nervous breath, he said, "Hey, I'm a big-picture guy."

I take him at his word. He is already a president of big ideas -- privatization, unilateralism and preventive war among them. And it seems perfectly obvious what some of the next big ideas are. They are out there already, and a surprising number of them do involve science and technology. This should be the White House big-idea list:

Affordable health care for Americans; modernization without war for developing countries; serious research rather than slogans on global climate. And there are smaller big ideas, too, beginning with stem cell research.

To govern is to choose, said Kennedy. And, like him, Bush will be judged by which of these ideas he chooses -- and makes happen.

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