Sunday, April 18, 2010

Of Men and Missions ... and Money

I will admit that I haven't always been sure how I felt about Al Neuharth.

For the most part, I think he is a businessman, although he fancies himself a journalist. He founded USA Today, the crown jewel of the Gannett empire — and, as a one–time copy editor for the Arkansas Gazette, I have my share of issues with the way Gannett ran the Gazette in the last years of its existence — which I have always regarded as short–sighted, at best.

Neuharth wasn't with Gannett when it decided to close the Gazette, but he had been part of its culture, part of its mindset. So I am conflicted. Often, when I read what Neuharth has written, his opinions seem reasonable to me. But I never seem to know where the often–idealistic (and, admittedly, sometimes naive) journalist ends and the hard–nosed businessman takes over.

Anyway, I've been reading his "Plain Talk" column at in which he takes issue with Barack Obama's message to NASA last week.

Yesterday, I wrote about the 40th anniversary of Apollo 13 and the need to stand by NASA. I said that I hoped Obama was telling the truth when he pledged the nation's unwavering support for the space agency.

Today, I read that Neuharth says Obama "in effect pulled the plug on our space program."

John F. Kennedy "must have turned over in his grave," Neuharth wrote.

I have disagreed with Obama on many occasions. But, as far as I know, we've always spoken the same language. When we have disagreed, it was on the substance and/or the logic of the ideas, not the definition of words.

I know that words can mean different things to different people — certainly to different generations. But I think there's only one way to interpret the phrase "pull the plug" on something.

And I clearly heard Obama say, "I am 100% committed to the mission of NASA and its future." There's only one way to interpret that as well. Right?

So it appears that what we have here, as they said in "Cool Hand Luke," is a failure to communicate.

Well, not really, if you know much about Neuharth's history. Perhaps a failure to comprehend.

See, Neuharth's been a vocal critic of the war in Iraq. He has compared U.S. involvement in Iraq to its involvement in Vietnam. And it is through that lens that he tends to view and evaluate all other federal spending decisions.

In the interest of full disclosure, I, too, have been opposed to the war in Iraq since the beginning. And I think the spending level to which the government has been committed in Iraq played a role in the recession that has had this country in a stranglehold for nearly 2½ years. But it's only one of the issues that needs to be addressed.

And Obama does appear to be winding down — in a responsible way — American military involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I have seen less effort being made to create jobs, but Neuharth touches on one such NASA–related effort (in his view) in his critique.

"Unfortunately, some political and business leaders in Florida are buying the Obama plan because it may provide a few jobs for some of those thousands who will be unemployed here when the shuttle program ends," he writes. "That should not be the most important of our nation's concern."

Well, it seems to me that the phasing out of the space shuttle program has been in the works for awhile. I believe the program's retirement originally was called for by George W. Bush's 2004 Vision for Space Exploration. There has been some legislative maneuvering that may have contributed to a temporary impression that the program could be revived, but the plan to mothball the shuttle could hardly be considered an Obama initiative.

And, in this economy, anything that may provide some jobs for displaced specialists is not something to be dismissed lightly.

After doing a little light name–dropping (in this case, Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, who calls Obama's plan for NASA "devastating"), Neuharth says this: "Obama's proposal is all about money priorities and our inexcusable war costs, not about peaceful world leadership. His proposed budget for 2011 makes that clear:
  • Wars: $159.3 billion.

  • Space: $19 billion.
"That suggests Obama thinks that wars in places like Afghanistan and Iraq are nearly 10 times more important than exploring the last frontier in space."

Maybe I missed something, but I don't get that message.

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