Thursday, March 29, 2012

Mad Men Season 5 Premiere (Part 2)

As I noted in my previous post, the opening scene of the “Mad Men” season premiere appeared to show advertising employees dropping water balloons on a group protesting for greater spending on anti-poverty programs.  It turns out the scene is based on a real-life event uncovered by the show’s researchers. In the New York Times’ account of May 28, 1966, the Young and Rubicam (Y & R) employees harassed a group picketing outside the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) office on Madison Avenue.  The scene reflects some of the fissures surrounding President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” also referred to as the “Great Society.”

Passed in 1964, the OEO was the lead agency in LBJ’s ambitious effort to reduce poverty.  Run by JFK”s brother-in-law Sargent Shriver, it was designed to administer antipoverty funds through local Community Action Agencies (CAAs) in major urban areas.  Based on the idea that poor people needed to be politically empowered to overcome poverty, legislation required the CAAs to achieve “maximum feasible participation” among the poor.  While conservatives often criticize Great Society programs for creating large centralized bureaucracies, elements of the New Left of the 1960s shared the right’s suspicion of the federal government, wanting more “participatory democracy” that would put power in the hands of local communities. The CAAs seemed to be influenced by this ideology, even though Johnson was certainly not sympathetic to the New Left.

Big city mayors such as Chicago’s Richard J. Daley disliked the CAAs because they thought they were receiving funds that should go to their own political organizations.  Furthermore, the CAAs developed their own power base and opposed the policies of local administrations, as much of the CAA’s efforts went to political activities that did not help people get out of poverty. 

According to the NYT”s account from 1966, this dynamic may explain the once forgotten but now famous protest.  Chanting “O-E-O, we’ve got the poverty where is the dough,” outside the Northeast regional headquarters of the OEO, the picketers expressed frustration that more antipoverty money was not coming to New York City.  The regional director responded that there weren’t more funds available, adding, “New York is getting more than its fair share of money.”  It’s possible that less funding was available because the war in Vietnam was crowding out appropriations for the War on Poverty, as LBJ increasingly realized he could not have both “guns” and “butter” at the same time.

The signs hung on the Y & R building in 1966 during the protest provide an early sign of the backlash against American liberalism that gained strength during the second half of the decade.  One read,  “If you want money, get yourself a job,” a refrain that would become more common as many working-class Americans began to believe the Great Society was wasting their tax dollars.  Another said, “Support your local police—no review board,” a reference to the demands from liberals for a civilian review board to monitor police brutality.  Such an oversight agency was deeply unpopular in the outer boroughs of the city as crime grew throughout the decade, which was reflected in the season four “Mad Men” episode where Joan and Roger are mugged.  Rising crime across the country made “law and order” a popular cry for conservative politicians and would contribute to the GOP’s victory in the 1966 midterm elections as well as Richard Nixon’s presidential win in 1968.

Although the 1966 protest represents popular perceptions of the 1960s as a decade of liberal political and cultural change, the signs at Y & R are also an important representation of the spirit of the times.  While social movements like the civil rights and feminist movements achieved legal success and more money was spent fighting poverty, many blue-collar Americans resisted these changes, leading to a conservative backlash that was just as enduring as the social changes of the period.  After 1968, Republicans controlled the White House for 20 of the next 24 years, their reign only interrupted by Jimmy Carter’s narrow post-Watergate win in 1976.  Political conservatism, just as much as cultural liberalism, is a central legacy of the turbulent 1960s.  

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Mad Men Season 5 Premiere

After a way-too-long hiatus, “Mad Men” is finally back and it is 1966.  The show’s aesthetic appears considerably brighter than in previous seasons, perhaps reflecting the move from the early 1960s to the cultural shifts of the second half of the decade.  During this period, the civil rights movement moved from focusing on legal equality to emphasizing economic issues, the antiwar movement grew while hawks and doves clashed over the Vietnam War, the drug culture emerged and sexual mores evolved.

The program begins with executives from another Madison Avenue agency dropping water balloons on interracial protesters advocating greater funding for anti-poverty programs.  President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty was well underway at this point, but some liberals were frustrated that Vietnam was siphoning away funds from it.  The protest may be a reference to the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), which formed in 1966 and agitated for greater social spending.

By 1966, the Americanization of the war in Vietnam was in its second year.  While a majority of Americans still supported the war, opposition was gradually growing as more bodies came home.  Indeed, arch-conservative Bert Copper and Peggy Olson’s boyfriend, Abe Drexler, who is a bohemian journalist, debate the merits of the domino theory at Don Draper’s 40th birthday party.   The domino theory, which was first espoused by Cold Warriors in the 1950s, suggested that if one nation fell to communism, nearby countries would then fall as well.  Believing that all communist nations took orders from the Kremlin, this idea was a central part of the rationale for defending non-communist South Vietnam from aggression from communist North Vietnam  “The domino theory is not a joke,” declares Cooper, while Abe responds that Vietnam is in the midst of a civil war and “that there is no monolithic communism. It’s just an excuse”

Signs of the growing power of the youth culture also appear, as one client wants to change his company’s 1950s era image in order to reach out to college kids.  Disenchanted with Peggy’s first ad proposal, he even suggests a campaign that incorporates student protests.

As has been the case in previous seasons, gender issues remain at the center of “Mad Men.” The show not so subtly suggests that Trudy Campbell and Joan Harris, who have both given birth since the last season, are suffering from postpartum depression.  “The Feminine Mystique” again makes an appearance, as Joan is desperate to get back to work, although her mother declares that her doctor husband won’t “allow” her.
Peggy Olson also continues to signify the women’s movement in various ways.  Early on, she mentions that she spent the weekend working at the office.  Later, she becomes extremely uncomfortable when asked to take care of Joan’s baby for a brief time.

The season seems to continue the gradual shift towards disapproval of the era’s smoking and drinking, which were arguably romanticized in the early seasons.  Roger’s and Don’s boozing seems to be taking a toll on their work, as Pete appears to be the only one bringing in any business and Peggy is carrying the advertising load.  Pete even gets frustrated when Don and Roger are late to a meeting, sarcastically asking if “they stopped for a drink along the way?”  He then tells Roger not to smoke in his office.

Other historical references included Oldsmobile wanting to meet with Roger to find “a way around (Ralph) Nader.”  This is a reference to the publication of Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965, which lead to greater regulation of auto safety, including seat belts.  Pete tells Roger that there isn’t any way.

Finally, it appears that race, which has been a minor theme in the show, may be moving closer to center stage.  To mock their competitors who dropped the water balloons, Roger and Don place an ad in the New York Times declaring that Sterling Cooper Draper Price is an “equal opportunity employer.”  As a result, a number of African Americans come to the office looking for jobs.  Roger is horrified and Lane says the firm can’t afford any new hires.  Fearing bad publicity if they turn the applicants away, the firm accepts resumes from black women for a secretarial position as the show concludes.  Even at Sterling Cooper, the times may be a-changin'.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The History of March Madness

This week marks the beginning of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament, popularly known as “March Madness,” which determines the men’s college basketball champion.  The month-long competition, once relatively obscure, has become massively popular, garnering the interest of casual fans more than any other sporting event besides the Super Bowl.

In the 1950s, the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) was the most prestigious postseason college tournament.  Over time, the NCAA surpassed it, with John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins teams dominating throughout the 1960s and 70s, winning 10 titles in 12 years.  The NCAA split the field into four regions, with the winners of each area becoming known as the “Final Four.”  After airing on regional television in its early years, the final appeared on network television for the first time in 1973, as UCLA defeated Memphis State (The Big Dance, p. 100).

As with other sporting events I’ve analyzed, observers often point to one particular game that laid the groundwork for its rise. In the case of the NCAA Tournament, it was the 1979 title game between Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans and Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores. Though the game itself was not close, the hyped battle between the two future NBA stars produced the highest rating in the history of the tournament, setting the stage for the event’s growth during the final two decades of the 20th century.

The 1980s and 90s witnessed a series of close games involving elite programs and All-American players.  With college stars remaining in school for three or four years, many appeared in multiple Final Fours, including Houston’s Clyde Drexler (2) and Hakeem Olajuwon (3), Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing (3), as well as Duke’s Christian Laettner, who made it in all four of his seasons.  Indeed, Laettner’s Blue Devils replaced UCLA as the dominant program during this era, becoming the New York Yankees of the sport, loved by supporters and despised by opponents.

The emergence of ESPN in 1979 proved crucial to the rise of the tournament, as the nascent sports network covered every game of the hectic early rounds, breaking in to the ends of close contests to show dramatic finishes.  This technique made the first four days of March Madness among the most exciting in all of sports.  After witnessing the success of this formula, CBS purchased the rights to the entire tournament, putting all of the games on network television in 1991 (Big Dance, 105). 

By the 1990s, more and more offices held pools to see who could correctly fill out their brackets and predict the outcome of the tournament.  With everyone putting their money on the line, the office pool became a national phenomenon with even non-fans participating and following the results.  President Obama, a huge basketball fan, has publicly announced his brackets on ESPN each year since he took office.  Long lunches are often the rule of the day during the early rounds, diminishing worker productivity.  With the emergence of the Internet, the situation has become worse as workers can now watch all games streaming on their office computers.  One firm suggests that 2.5 million workers will spend roughly 90 minutes watching the tournament while ESPN ‘s Liz Granderson proposes making the first two days of the tournament a national holiday (Challenger, Gray and Christmas).

Like most sporting events, the ratings for March Madness have declined in recent years due to competition from new entertainment options.  Furthermore, with players either skipping college entirely or only going to school for a year, few players participate in more than one Final Four anymore.  NBA greats such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, unlike their predecessors, never played in the tournament.  In their absence, the coaches of elite programs have taken center stage, including Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, and Kentucky’s John Calipari.  Nevertheless, March Madness remains the most consistently entertaining event in sports and I will be following my brackets religiously for the next month (at least until they’re busted!).

Sources: Barry Wilner and Ken Rappaport, The Big Dance: The Story of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, 2012.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Magic Johnson, AIDS, and "The Announcement," 20 Years Later

The ESPN film, “The Announcement,” transports us back two decades to 1991, when basketball superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson told the nation he was HIV positive. The attitudes revealed in the program, however, make it feel like a century ago.  In a time when AIDS has become a treatable chronic condition, the documentary reminds its audience of an era when the disease was a death sentence and one of the most controversial issues in the country.

Doctors first encountered AIDS in the early 1980s, when it began to appear among groups of gay men in major cities.  Over time, it became clear that the illness, which weakened an individual’s immune system, produced a 100% fatality rate.  When actor Rock Hudson announced that he had contracted the illness in 1985, awareness of the disease increased dramatically.

Still, ignorance marked the early years of the AIDS epidemic with many believing they could get the illness through causal contact.  The Reagan Administration was slow to respond to the crisis and some social conservatives blamed the disease on the gay community, with Pat Buchanan declaring, "The poor homosexuals -- they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is extracting an awful retribution.”  Ryan White, a teenage hemophiliac who had contracted the virus through a blood transfusion, became the public face of the illness because he was an “innocent” victim of the disease.

“The Announcement” recalls these times, when even a star like Magic had a difficult time getting people to work out with him because he had HIV.  His appearance in the NBA All-Star game a few months after his press conference was fraught with controversy, with some players fearful about being on the court with Magic.  When Johnson attempted a full-scale comeback in the fall of 1992, it ended during the preseason because some players were reluctant to physically challenge him.  Utah Jazz All-Star Karl Malone, Magic’s teammate on the 1992 U.S. Olympic “Dream Team,” openly expressed concerns about playing against Johnson.

One notable omission from “The Announcement” is Magic’s appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show the day after his admission.  During the interview, Hall, a close friend of Johnson’s, asked him about the association of AIDS with the gay community.  Magic responded by declaring he was the “furthest thing from a homosexual” and the crowd hooted and hollered in approval. It is interesting that this clip, which seems anachronistic today but reflected the homophobia of the time, was left out.

Also, Nelson George, the director of the film, compares Magic’s revelation to the Kennedy assassination, calling it a moment that everyone remembers where he or she was when they heard about it. Though Johnson’s press conference was an important event, I don’t think it quite rises to that level of importance, though I’d be curious as to what readers think in this regard.

When Magic made his announcement, the collective national and international reaction was that he would die in relatively short order.  Indeed, AIDS advocates criticized Johnson’s optimism about beating the disease as evidence of denial. In the mid-1990s, however, AIDS researchers like David Ho, who treated Johnson in the early stages of the illness, developed the “cocktail,” which limited the effectiveness of the virus, allowing people to live long and productive lives while HIV positive.  Though there was no moment of national celebration as there was when Jonas Salk introduced the polio vaccine in the 1950s, the illness gradually receded from the headlines and is no longer the front-page news it was from the early 80s to the mid-90s. 

Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that the virus continues to ravage the developing world, particularly Africa.  In another example of changing times, American evangelicals have become outspoken supporters of the effort to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa.  Such behavior, embodied by the considerable financial support for AIDS programs in Africa during the George W. Bush Administration, represents a dramatic shift from the initial reaction of social conservatives to the epidemic.

Today, Magic Johnson is a tremendously successful businessman and TV announcer.  He has almost completely eliminated the stigma of the illness from himself, earning major endorsements like he did during his athletic prime in the 1980s.  Amazingly, Ho says Magic’s immune system is now stronger than it was when he was initially diagnosed in 1991. As Johnson himself notes, his survival is both a blessing and a curse, providing evidence of the success one can have living with HIV while also diminishing fear about its consequences.

Monday, March 12, 2012

"Game Change" and the Evolution of the Vice Presidency

I very much liked the HBO movie “Game Change” and its examination of Sarah Palin’s role in the 2008 presidential campaign.  Featuring strong performances by Julianne Moore as Palin, Ed Harris as John McCain, and Woody Harrelson as Steve Schmidt, McCain’s campaign manager, it is one of the best political movies of recent years.   Furthermore, the film’s depiction of Palin’s ill-fated vice-presidential campaign reveals how the importance of the second-in-command position has risen over the years.  Once little more than an afterthought, the vice presidency has become exceptionally important in American presidential campaigns and governance.

In the not too-distant past, the V.P. was almost irrelevant, except for its role in the constitutional succession process.  John Adams, the first man to hold the position, called it  “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”  Presidents often kept their vice president in the dark about vital issues, as Harry Truman did not even know about the Manhattan Project when FDR died in 1945.  In 1956, Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson allowed the convention delegates to choose his running mate, with Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver edging out a young John F. Kennedy. Four years later, JFK picked Lyndon Johnson to help him win in the South, where he was going to struggle because of his Catholicism.  Though LBJ proved critical in carrying Texas, the last time a V.P. pick put a state in the president’s column, he played little role in the Kennedy Administration.  Johnson returned the favor by treating his V.P., Senator Hubert Humphrey, in much the same fashion.

In 1972, when the vetting process for selection was more lax, Democratic nominee George McGovern picked Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri as his running mate.  The media discovered that Eagleton had undergone treatment for mental illness and received electroshock therapy, causing a firestorm.  Though Eagleton neglected to disclose his medical history to the campaign, McGovern initially stood by his choice, but eventually relented because of the controversy.  McGovern would likely have lost to Richard Nixon anyway, but the fumbled V.P. choice sealed his fate.  As a result, vice-presidential selections would face greater vetting in the future (or at least that’s how the story goes).

During the Carter years, the role of vice president changed significantly.  Running as a Southern governor critical of traditional Washington ways, Jimmy Carter brought in Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota to bring some insider experience.  Though Carter fumbled in his dealings with Congress, Mondale became the first V.P. to have a White House office and had far greater responsibilities than his mentor Humphrey had when he served LBJ.  Mondale’s tenure, which also included weekly lunches with the president, set an important precedent for future vice presidents.

In 1988, George H. W. Bush chose his running mate, Senator Dan Quayle of Indiana, for the traditional reasons a candidate picked a vice president.  Bush, a moderate Republican from the World War II generation, chose Quayle, a conservative Republican from the baby boom generation, to provide ideological and age balance to the ticket.  This calculus backfired when Quayle appeared too youthful and inexperienced during the campaign and was a liability throughout the Bush administration.  It was probably too much, too soon for Quayle, who might have had a respectable career if he hadn’t faced the national spotlight before he was prepared.

With Quayle’s selection still the subject of criticism in 1992, Bill Clinton set a new standard when he chose Al Gore as his partner.  Rather than looking to balance the ticket, Clinton chose another candidate like himself, a Southern moderate baby boomer.  Redefining a Democratic Party still struggling with its liberal reputation, this break with conventional wisdom proved brilliant, as the Clinton/Gore campaign left their convention with energy and momentum and never looked back.

Once in office, Gore played a considerable role in the administration.  Not merely an adviser, Gore carried out specific portfolios in areas of his expertise, such as Russia, space and technology, the environment, and reinventing government.   The days of the irrelevant vice presidency seemed far behind.

In light of this model, candidates began to pick V.P.’s as much for their role in governance as for their political benefits.  Choices like Dick Cheney (Wyoming) and Joe Lieberman (Connecticut) came from states that Bush and Gore expected in win easily.  To avoid a Quayle-like disaster, candidates also picked individuals who had already been through national campaigns (Gore, Jack Kemp, John Edwards, Joe Biden) or were established Washington fixtures (Cheney, Lieberman).  Controversies over the qualifications of vice presidential selections appeared to be a thing of the past.

While the selection process went much smoother, vice presidents certainly did not escape controversy. Playing a greater role than any previous occupant of the office, Dick Cheney became the most powerful and divisive V.P. in American history.  Many Americans believed that Cheney was the true leader in the Bush Administration, instrumental in the decision to go to war in Iraq. 

Given the considerable roles played by Gore and Cheney, respectively, the events of “Game Change” seem quite perplexing.  Perhaps because of the fading memory of the Quayle selection, “Game Change” portrays a scattershot vetting process of Palin that only took five days and led to the pick of an unqualified candidate.  Desperate to win the election against long odds, McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt (Harrelson) and others believed a dramatic step was necessary to defeat Obama.  The results, as the movie shows, were simply disastrous.  Palin lacked the knowledge and temperament to conduct a national campaign and while she energized the GOP base, the Alaska governor hurt them dramatically with the swing voters necessary to win the election.  Though McCain, like McGovern in 1972, would likely have lost anyway because of Bush’s unpopularity and the collapsing economy, Palin ended any chance for the GOP nominee.  

Just as the two decades following Dan Quayle’s selection led to greater conservatism in the vice presidential selection process, “Game Change” and the Palin pick will likely have the same impact. Assuming Mitt Romney is the GOP nominee, I doubt he will pick a rising but unproven star like Florida Senator Marco Rubio or New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.  The risk is simply too great.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

"21 Jump Street," Johnny Depp, and the Rise of FOX

In an earlier post, I explored how studios revive old television and film franchises in a quarter-century cycle (See And like clockwork, Hollywood is now recycling shows from the late 1980s, as the film version of “21 Jump Street” premieres this week.  “Jump Street” has not aired in syndication for many years and is a largely forgotten program, but it was one of the early FOX shows and helped launch the network as well as Johnny Depp’s acting career.

When “21 Jump Street” debuted in the spring of 1987 as part of FOX’s first primetime lineup, Rupert Murdoch’s dream of challenging the decades-old dominance of ABC, NBC, and CBS seemed like a fantasy.  The program, which revolved around a group of youthful-looking police officers working undercover in American high schools, appeared on the air before early FOX hits like “The Simpsons” or “Beverly Hills 90210.”  The then-unknown Depp became the center of the ensemble cast, which led to roles in films like “Edward Scissorhands” (1990), the first of seven collaborations with director Tim Burton.

While FOX struggled in the ratings in its early years, the network’s fortunes got a huge boost when Murdoch acquired the rights to the National Football Conference (NFC) football package in 1993.  At the time, the NFC was dominating the NFL with its streak of 13 consecutive Super Bowl victories, and featured bigger markets (Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, Dallas) than the weaker AFC.  After this coup, FOX acquired stronger affiliates and the network became a genuine competitor to the Big Three. 

Once the entertainment network attained a secure foothold, the FOX News Channel started a few years later in 1996.  With the help of longtime GOP operative Roger Ailes, Murdoch sought to dethrone CNN as leader of the 24-hour cable news market.  The network quickly became a success, carving out a niche with conservative viewers unhappy with the supposed liberal bias of the mainstream media.  By 2002, it had surpassed CNN and has usually led the news ratings race ever since.  In a landmark for cable news in 2004, more people watched the Republican National Convention on FOX News than any other network, including the old broadcast networks.

As FOX News became a controversial success, its entertainment counterpart became the most popular broadcast network for the coveted 18-49 year-old demographic.  With shows like “24” and “House” in its lineup, along with the unbelievable popularity of “American Idol,” FOX defeated the major networks among younger viewers from 2004 to 2009.

Today, FOX is thriving while NBC, which dominated the ratings race during the 1980s and 90s, barely has a pulse among viewers.  Over the same period, Depp became a bankable leading man as well as highly respected actor with three Oscar nominations.  Without “21 Jump Street,” there might never have been a FOX News Channel or a Captain Jack Sparrow.  Is this a good or a bad thing?  I blog.  You decide.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

50th Anniversary of John Glenn's Flight and the Decline of NASA

With little fanfare, the county commemorated the 50th anniversary of John Glenn becoming the first American to orbit the Earth on February 21.  The inattention to Glenn’s accomplishment as well as the constant mocking of Newt Gingrich’s moon base plan, culminating in SNL’s February 4th opening skit, “Newt Gingrich: Moon President,” reveals a significant change in American ambitions.  The space program, once an important source of national pride and influence on television and film, has faded in relevance and NASA is rapidly headed toward obscurity.

The Cold War provided the impetus for the space race.  Glenn’s triumphant voyage came after the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into space in 1957 with Sputnik as well as the first man into space when Yuri Gagarin made an orbital flight in 1961.   The race continued as the United States beat the Russians to the moon when Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong landed at Tranquility Base on July 20,1969.

During NASA’s heyday in the 1960s, astronauts became national icons who received tickertape parades down New York City’s Canyon of Heroes, as Glenn did in 1962.  The space race gave credence in science fiction as “Star Trek” premiered on television in 1966, with “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Planet of the Apes” opening in theatres in 1968.  Even a silly sitcom like “I Dream of Jeannie” (1965-70) took place at Cape Canaveral where Larry Hagman’s bumbling character, Major Anthony Nelson, worked as an astronaut. 

After the moon landing, many NASA scientists like Werner Von Braun espoused visions similar to Newt’s, imagining moon bases by 1980 with trips to Mars to follow.  Indeed, Disney World’s “Flight to the Moon” became obsolete in “Tomorrowland” and was replaced by “Mission to Mars” in 1975.  With the moon race won, however, budgetary pressures led to the scrapping of the final three moon missions in favor of Skylab, a short-lived American space station.  Further travel to the stars was then shelved in favor of the more cost-effective space shuttle, which could be reused. 

While Americans gradually lost interest in space, the still-fresh memory of the program remained important into the 1970s and early 80s.  Science fiction reached new heights with the incredible success of the “Star Wars” trilogy from 1977-83 and the consequent revival of “Star Trek.”  “The Right Stuff,” (1983), with its heroic portrayal of the original Mercury astronauts, fueled talk of a presidential run for John Glenn, then a U.S. Senator from Ohio.  Despite the Hollywood treatment, Glenn’s 1984 campaign barely got off the ground and former Vice-President Walter Mondale and a then-unknown Gary Hart trounced him in the Democratic primaries.

Starting with the maiden voyage of Columbia in 1981, the space shuttle program produced important scientific gains like the Hubble Telescope, but missions to low Earth orbit could not inspire the national imagination in the same way a voyage to the moon did. Over time, Americans began to only pay serious attention to NASA when there were tragedies, like the 1986 Challenger explosion.  That disaster brought about national mourning, in part because it was the first time astronauts had been lost in flight, but also because the space program was still a key part of American identity.  Witness the far less emotional reaction a generation later to the 2003 Columbia disaster.  Only the gimmick of sending the 77 year-old Glenn back into space on Discovery in 1998 drew significant media attention for a success.

The decline of blockbuster science fiction reflected this to some degree.  The biggest movie franchises of the last decade did not occur in space but were earth-bound fantasies such as “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter.” While I enjoyed these films immensely, they were largely backward looking, particularly LOTR, which seemed to glorify a rural, feudal past.

Though both President Bushes proposed returning to the moon, President Obama is largely privatizing the program with the intent of eventually launching a trip to land astronauts on an asteroid.  Furthermore, public support for space travel remains low in light of contemporary budget deficits.  The nation also seems to have lost the passion for space to the point that Newt is mocked for the same ideas that respectable scientists suggested a generation ago. This dynamic seems unlikely to change anytime soon. As some have speculated, it may take a challenge from another foreign power like China to inspire a revitalized space program.