Presidents are prone to elevate their policies to the highest levels, using words, “great,” “new,” etc. to advertise how unique they are going to be in the world. Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy introduced us to a “New Deal” and “New Frontier,” respectively, and now Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez (AOC to us) has added color to the combination, “Green New Deal.” Lyndon Johnson sought a “Great Society” that now Trump is restoring with “MAGA,” identified on the street with red hats.
Not that each politician was insincere or that the public didn’t buy in. They were not and they did. Nor does it make much difference: the New Deal didn’t end the Depression, and JFK died too soon to realize his Frontier. Johnson’s society was anything but great, and Trump’s MAGA and AOC’s Green remain to be seen. Just don’t hold your breath.
But the main point about such flattering language is that it offered the voting public some sort of hope that, the next time around, the place would be better than it is now. “Hope springs eternal” goes the saying, and, without hope, the attention and the patience of the electorate vanishes quickly. True, it’s all a “play on words,” but it’s effective, and, without hope, life soon becomes the “same old, same old.”
What would be the fate of a candidate who promised, “vote for me and we all stay still?”
Kennedy’s Inaugural Address offered hope out of the depressing Cold War, reminding Americans of their mission on earth with his assurance that “I do not shrink from this responsibility, I welcome it.” Roosevelt gave hope within the worst economic depression, proclaiming that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
A little-remembered part of Kennedy’s Inaugural was the ambition to “let us explore the stars.” This promise came and went until he told Congress that one of his primary missions was “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” Of course, this promise fell mostly on deaf ears. The public had a bit more on their mind than any such rhetoric that put the country into the solar system (a Gallup Poll indicated 58% opposed).
Kennedy went into more detail on September 12, 1962, when he addressed Rice University on the higher ambition to put America first and foremost into the “Space Race.” This remains one of the greatest oratories in American history – a promise that needs recall now more than even then.
At the time, the U.S. was decidedly inferior to the Soviet Union in Outer Space, as Americans still had the memory of the Soviet “Sputnik” visibly circling the earth every 40 hours (1957). Not-to-mention Yuri Gagarin, the first human to orbit the earth (1961).
At Rice, Kennedy did not pull punches. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”
Kennedy went on to put this new effort into context, “….why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?” In doing so, he condensed history into brief time eras, “Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power,” ending with the present moment when Mariner 2 was heading for Venus: “and now if America’s new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.”
With such metaphors, Kennedy sought to create a sense of urgency, purpose, and change into the audience, and the country itself. He deliberately injected a sense of romance coupled with patriotic history in his appeal. He talked of space as literally his “New Frontier,” implicitly invoking those of the past, “Manifest Destiny,” Lewis and Clark, “54/40 or fight,” make the world “safe for democracy,” Pearl Harbor, Berlin Airlift, etc.
He also emphasized that space travel was both affordable and doable while using the pronoun “we” throughout to enroll the public into the endeavor.
Kennedy succeeded beyond imagination, as, seven years after Rice, with over 400,000 working on the effort, Neil Armstrong stepped out of Apollo Eleven to the surface of the moon.
Kennedy never lived to see the reward for his ambition, while the “space race,” such as it was, ended in 1972 when the last (of five) lunar landings from the U.S. occurred. The period since has been occupied by a “Vietnam syndrome,” end of the Cold War, and the descent of American political ambitions into ideology, race, gender, and other purely domestic designs.
Today, the country faces a critical election with nothing on the horizon remotely close to what was conceived sixty years ago. Nearly the opposite: the country appears on the brink of destruction as buildings burn, cities are occupied, and attention is totally focused on what internal groups demand here and now, but all on planet earth.
With nothing outside left to conquer, with external ambitions long-since gone, the American “dream” has turned into itself again. Even Trump’s “MAGA” rhetoric has an isolationist memory. But the administration has, to its credit, created a “Space Force,” whose ambitions remain promising, but little more.
In the meantime, others are not so inhibited. Ye Peijian, head of China’s Lunar Program, spoke to his country this way in 2018: “The universe is an ocean, the moon is the Diaoyu Islands, Mars is Huangyan Island. If we don’t get there now… then we will be blamed by our descendants. If others go there, then they will take over, and you won’t be able to go even if you want to. This is reason enough” [for China’s space project].
Is there another JFK out there? Again, don’t hold your breath.