Political Hay

Santorum Rejects Reagan Space Legacy

Conservative stumbles in bid to hit Gingrich as late president, Challenger remembered.

By 2.7.12

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I like Rick Santorum.

My former senator, whom I voted for three times and have written about here and here is conservative, a great family man, smart and passionate about his beliefs.

So… I hate to say this, but at the moment: what a disappointment.

What in the world is Rick Santorum thinking?

Bad enough that Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry briefly put themselves out there to appear as the anti-capitalist candidates.

In this corner, the instant reaction to that mercifully short epidemic of conservative Bain bashing was that if that's where Newt and Perry were headed on such a major conservative principle that Reagan so exemplified -- they should withdraw. Gingrich, typically, candidly admitted a mistake and stopped. His Super PAC ads vanished. Perry hung on to the idea, lost the support of a prominent South Carolina backer on the eve of the South Carolina primary, and withdrew.

Now, for whatever reason, Rick Santorum is singing the same anti-conservative, anti-Reagan song -- just a different verse. This is his strategy to be The Conservative Alternative to moderate Mitt Romney? By joining Romney in rejecting the Reagan space legacy? Just as everybody is reminded both of Ronald Reagan's 101st birthday and the late January 1986 Challenger tragedy?

Oh my.

Instead of Bain bashing, Santorum is attacking Gingrich over the ex-Speaker's vow to return America to space exploration with a vengeance -- in the form of a moon colony. An obvious intent to carry forward with the Reagan space legacy made all the more potent by the Obama administration's deliberate halt to the very idea of a serious 21st century American presence in space. Appallingly, if predictably, Gingrich's decision to carry forward with Reagan's vision has already been mocked by the Obama-lite Romney. But Rick Santorum? The would-be "Authentic Conservative"? Bashing Ronald Reagan's vision?

Sadly, yes.

Call me gobsmacked, but now running out there on radio airtime is this Santorum-sponsored anti-Reagan space legacy commercial being presented as an attack on Gingrich. Mocks the Santorum commercial as reported in the Hill:

"Reckless spending has led to $15 trillion of national debt," the voice-over in the ad says. "And what does Newt Gingrich suggest? Spending half a trillion dollars on a moon colony."

"Gingrich's example is fiscal insanity," the ad continues.

The ad goes on to argue that Santorum is the most authentic conservative in the GOP presidential field. Santorum has focused his attacks on Gingrich recently in an effort to win over conservative Republicans who favor the former Speaker. Santorum and Gingrich are fighting to be the conservative alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney.

While campaigning in Florida before its primary on Jan. 31, Gingrich proposed putting a base on the moon. His suggestion was widely criticized by his opponents.

Doubling down, Santorum wrote an op-ed on the subject, mocking the Reagan beliefs by comparing them to the cartoon character George Jetson. Earlier he'd said: "I promise you: no moon colonies, I promise."

So let me see if I understand this.

The week that the nation is be celebrating Ronald Reagan's 101st birthday -- that would be February 6 -- Rick Santorum has selected that exact moment to present himself as the anti-Reagan? With the nation still recalling the tragedy that was the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle 26 Januarys ago, Rick Santorum sides with… Barack Obama and Mr. Obama-Lite Mitt Romney? But says he's the most "authentic conservative"?

Well. As the former president might say.

If this is what passes for genius in the Santorum campaign to be The Conservative Alternative -- wow. And, in the spirit of fairness, since I suggested Gingrich get out of the campaign if he continued his Bain bashing (which he stopped) -- the sauce for the Gingrich and Perry geese should be ladled to the Santorum gander.

If Rick Santorum is going to try and become The Conservative Alternative at the expense of the Reagan space legacy -- he should stop and get out of the campaign right now before he inflicts any more damage to himself and the conservative cause.

Is there a Reagan space story here? Of course.

One particular morning in January of 1986, a man named Michael Smith got up and went to work. On the bureau dresser, he left a file card with a note to his wife, Jane. And off he went.

What did Michael Smith do?

He was an astronaut. In fact, he was a crew member of an American space ship.

Long before dawn, Michael Smith, along with his fellow crew members, was being suited up.

The names of his fellow crew members were, in alphabetical order:

Greg Jarvis
Christa McAuliffe
Ronald McNair
Ellison Onizuka
Judith Resnik
Dick Scobee

The name of their space ship -- a shuttle captained by Smith's fellow astronaut Dick Scobee?

That's right: Challenger.

In the White House that morning of January 28, it was busy. I was there. That night the President would make the famous ride up to Capitol Hill to deliver the traditional State of the Union Address. Anyone with a job in the various precincts of the president had their individual tasks, and I had mine.

And then… and then.

President Reagan would write it in his daily diary as follows:

A day we'll remember for the rest of our lives. Started off with a staff meeting & then a session with the Cong. Leadership of both parties. Had a go around with Tip (then-Speaker of the House Thomas P. O'Neill, a Democrat) -- think I came out pretty good……..

Then I was getting a briefing for the meeting I was to have with network anchors -- an advance on the St. of the Union address scheduled for tonight. In came Poindexter (the national security advisor) & the V.P. with the news the shuttle Challenger had blown up on takeoff. We all headed for a TV & saw the explosion re-played. From then on there was only (one) subject -- the death of the 6 crew & 1 passenger -- Mrs. McAuliffe, the teacher who had won the right to make the flight. There is no way to describe our shock & horror. We cancelled -- I should say postponed the St. of the Union address til next week.

Abruptly, everything that was "normal" that day -- in the White House and America -- stopped in its tracks. The great American adventure that was space exploration was faced with a highly visible, globally televised tragedy.

The images of the Challenger soaring into space, then literally exploding in a clear blue sky as the parents of school teacher-civilian astronaut Christa McAuliffe watched from nearby stands in dawning horror, were everywhere.

Everywhere.

What Americans who were alive that day remember is the President's speech to the nation that night.

But there is another story, much unremembered today and obviously not recalled by Rick Santorum.

Three days after the tragedy that was the Challenger explosion there was a memorial service in Houston at the NASA Space Center. The President and Mrs. Reagan departed the White House at 8:45 to board Air Force One and be there with the families. Some 14,000 people were in attendance. All those Americans who worked directly for NASA, along with the families of the seven astronauts who died that terrible day. 

The President and Mrs. Reagan sat between the wife of the Challenger commander Dick Scobee, and Jane Smith, the wife of crew member Michael Smith. Wrote the president that night: "It was a hard time for all of the families & all we could do was hug them & try to hold back our tears."

In the middle of all this trauma, Jane Smith reached out to hand the president what he would later call "a most remarkable gift, a 3X5 file card that her husband had written before the flight and left on the bedroom dresser." Reagan was so taken aback at what he called "such a personal, generous gift that I didn't feel right keeping." He had it photocopied, and returned the original to Jane Smith.

What was on that card that so moved Ronald Reagan?

In his very neat, precise printing, on the last day of his life as an American space explorer, Michael Smith had written these words from the great science fiction writer H.G. Wells, leaving them for his wife.

For man, there is no rest and no ending. He must go on -- Conquest beyond Conquest; This little planet and its winds and ways, and all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him , and at last out across the immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the depths of space and all the mysteries of time -- still he will be but beginning.

The night of the quickly abandoned State of the Union Address, the night of the tragedy, Reagan sat down in the Oval Office behind what is known as the Resolute desk to address the nation. To many Americans in the day, the desk had been made famous from a photo of John F. Kennedy sitting behind it, the hinged door with the carved presidential seal swung open to reveal a beaming John F. Kennedy Jr. laughing as he peered out in the hide and seek fashion of a small boy.

In fact, the desk had gotten its name because it was made from the timbers of a British ship, the HMS Resolute. Why were these timbers now the desk of the President of the United States?

 The Resolute had been a ship meant for exploration. In this case, the 19th century exploration of the Arctic. In the middle of an 1853 expedition, the Resolute had become trapped, locked in the Arctic ice. By 1854, still locked in the ice, the Resolute was sealed up tight and abandoned, eventually floating free when it was discovered by an American whaler. The ship was saved by the Americans -- and returned to the Royal Navy. Some 23 years later, with the Resolute decommissioned, as a show of gratitude Queen Victoria had timbers from the ship famous for exploring the mysteries of the Arctic made into a desk and presented as a gift from the British people to President Rutherford B. Hayes.

The night of the Challenger tragedy, a tragedy of space exploration, Ronald Reagan sat down at the Resolute desk, a desk that was itself the literal symbol of man's quest for exploration over 100 years earlier. Reagan looked Americans in the eye, and, with an assist from his speechwriter Peggy Noonan, he said, in part this:

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's take-off. I know it's hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.

We'll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.

There's a coincidence today. On this day three hundred and ninety years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, "He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it." Well, today, we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake's, complete.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."

Thank you.

Of the three remaining major candidates in the Republican race for president, we now, embarrassingly, have two -- Romney and Santorum -- who are indicating they have no conception of the meaning behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office at which they wish to sit.

One understands the needs of candidates in presidential primaries and the requisite moments at which they all feel required to take after their respective opponents. But they can occasionally get it wrong… as Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Perry did on Bain Capital. As noted, Gingrich, catching flak, stopped. Perry persisted, and finally withdrew altogether.

Romney is so uncomprehending of conservatism there isn't enough space to list. But his remark that he would fire anybody who came to him with a suggestion to continue Reagan's space legacy with a program to colonize the moon was stunningly telling of exactly the problems a Romney nomination will bring. Befuddling, intellectually incoherent, and utterly unable to articulate visionary principles of liberty and freedom if his election depended on it. Which, of course, it will if he is the nominee.

 Which leaves Santorum. A genuine conservative and a considerable man of principle. Who, much presented as the conservative "steady Eddie" in this race, now abruptly decides to do his Romney-imitation and effectively assault both the spirit of the Reagan space program -- within days of both Reagan's birthday -- and the spirit of American courage and exploration reminded to us all by the 26th anniversary of the Challenger tragedy.

Presumably, in the haste to attack primary rival Gingrich, Santorum can chalk this episode off as momentarily taking leave of his senses.

Or can he?

Santorum's ad and his Op-Ed, meant to mock Gingrich, in reality can only distinctly not help Santorum's struggling campaign. Gingrich will surely make the inevitable -- and correct -- connection between Santorum's ad and a serious attack on the Reagan space legacy -- and the dreams of America itself. "We'll continue our quest in space…. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue," said President Reagan that tragic January night. Well, no they won't. Not if Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney have anything to say about it. "I promise," says Santorum.

Worse, whether Santorum's staff understands it or not the mocking Santorum ad and Op-Ed is an insult to the memory of seven extraordinarily brave Americans who 26 years ago this past January 28thgave their lives to continue the American journey into space. A journey, as Ronald Reagan well knew, into the future that America has always been, and will always be, about.

Former NASA executive Charles Miller, in a recent Wall Street Journal article, not only praised Gingrich's vision he outlined ways to return to space while well acknowledging the nation's current financial problems. In short, Mr. Miller, like Gingrich, embraced not only Reagan's vision but used another quality of Reagan's -- imagination -- to answer the unimaginative negativity that is now surprisingly advocated by Santorum and Romney.

Michael Smith -- not to mention teacher Christa McAuliffe and their fellow astronauts -- would be surely be very, very disappointed in Santorum… and eye-rolling at Romney.

Stop, Senator. Stop.

If you really wish to sit at the Resolute desk, a literal, physical reminder of the human dream of exploration -- be resolute. Show some imagination. Vision. Don't play Herbert Hoover.

The City on a Shining Hill is the place to reach for the stars.

Not a place to be mocked by a radio commercial or a dopey Op-Ed that signals a crabbed, timid, fainthearted, decidedly un-conservative and un-American state of mind. 

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.