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I met an American Idol this week. Actually, he is more of an American Icon: Gene Kranz. He was the Flight Director during the golden age of American space exploration that included all of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. He led the flight control team for the first lunar mission when Neil Armstrong landed with just 17 seconds of fuel to spare. And it was he who heard the famous words uttered by Jim Lovell, Mission Commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13: Houston, we have a problem. And it was he whose determined leadership and team spirit provided the ultimate response: Failure is not an option.
Mr. Kranz and I shared breakfast together and talked like two old pilots are wont to do, using our hands as much as our mouths. We swapped stories. His were far more interesting than mine. There is no mission more interesting to debrief than Apollo 13. His story was succinct and captivating. If you are of my age, you probably remember it well from memory or from the movie of the same name so I won’t go into detail here.
What I want to talk about are his comments regarding spaceflight, our national will and our tolerance for risk and reward. Let me start by reading the wonderful inscription that Gene Kranz wrote for me in his book.
“Inspired by a brash, young and articulate President, we rose to the challenge and won the war for space.”
That brash, young and articulate President was John F. Kennedy. He said,
“We choose to go to the moon. 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, and the others, too.”
That war was fought by engineers who averaged 26 years of age; using a hundred “computers,” real people with slide rules and graph paper instead a laptop; designers who invented new alloys and developed new metallurgy to carry man into space; and intrepid explorers who all risked their lives and some who lost theirs in an effort to fulfill the destiny of mankind to seek new frontiers, this one in space.
President Kennedy committed us to meet not only the challenge of space but the “other things,” too. They were different times back in 1962. We were in Cold War with the Soviet Union; we were at the precipice of expanding the war in Vietnam; the Cuban Missile Crisis was just in front of us; and we had successfully led the planet from the rubble of a World War. We had the best and we had the brightest talent in the world upon whose shoulders we could support an entire nation and lead an entire world. There was a lot on our plate.
We met great challenges with the courage and confidence that springs from a determined national leadership, a strong national identity and a frontier spirit. Each challenge is measured in terms of risk versus reward. America was a risk taker and a reaper of great rewards.
I told Mr. Kranz that I became a Navy pilot in hopes of becoming an astronaut. He wondered aloud, “what will we become if our children can’t dream of being an astronaut?”
What has become of us? We are no longer risk takers. We have traded our frontier spirit for the living room couch. We shield our children from competition: no dodge ball; no tag; no losers. The richest among us no longer create things of value. The poorest among us no longer have to work.
In the absence of a manned space program, we are shutting down large chunks of our space infrastructure. We are discarding thousands of engineers and interrupting the steady stream of knowledge and experience that we toiled so long and hard to earn. We are abrogating the highest of high technology to other countries whose own sense of national identity calls for bold and brash leadership. We beat the Russians to the moon and now we hitch a ride into space from them.
These times call for brash leadership in America. If we are ever to reemerge as the preeminent power on this planet and resume our leadership of the free world, then we must stake our claim on new frontiers and new challenges that inspire a generation to work hard and to engage our very best talent in its successful pursuit. Lofty goals and high ambition must be met with the sweat of our brow with our shoulders to the wheel. America’s destiny has always been to lead.
Gene Kranz is no longer the brash, young and articulate man of 30-something who led mission control during its’ finest hour. But age has not diminished his message that bold leadership and accountability mitigate risk and leads to ultimate reward.
Are you listening Mr. President? America, we have a problem and failure is not an option.
You have heard this oath stated so many times that you can recite it in your sleep: I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” So why is it that so many politicians engage in half-truths? Do two half-truths make a whole? And by politician, I am referring to our own President Obama who visited the Mexican border in El Paso, TX, this week to lecture the nation on something that we already know: we are a nation of immigrants. He reminded us of the inspiration, invention and innovation that have sprung into our national heritage from immigrant stock. Right he is on this point. My family is a product of the immigrant journey. Both sets of my Grandparents came through Ellis Island and established a home in New York City. My parents were raised there and established their life together. Were it not for immigration, I would not be here. I get that.
So, what half of what the President said on the border this week was less than wholly true? The mighty presumption is that all immigrants who arrive here are entitled to equal protection under the law regardless of whether or not they came here legally. Somehow, legal behavior is optional. And, if you have a romantic story to tell about how you broke the law and achieved, so much the better.
The President told the story of Jose Hernandez, a child of migrant Mexican parents, who aspired to become an astronaut, and became one. (Astronaut Hernandez was actually born in this country so he is entitled to US citizenship.) The implication is that every illegal is a diamond in the rough. Here is the other half of the truth: for every success story such as Mr. Hernandez, there are hundreds more who are members of drug cartels and Mexican gangs such as MS-13. They are responsible for driving a dagger even deeper into the heart of our cities and towns in America. Also missing from the untruthful half is the fact that if we cannot secure our borders from Mexicans, neither can we secure them from Saudis or Yemenis or Iranians who wish to do us harm. It is romantic, indeed, to believe that everyone who crosses the border to America shares the Emma Lazarus notion that every immigrant is tired or poor or yearning to breathe free. Too many wish us harm and all who disobey our laws must be stopped, not rewarded.
The President wants to crack down on those who take advantage of the shadowy existence of illegals. Amen to that, I say. Shed a light upon the massive underground economy that preys upon illegals and withholds its wages from honest US citizens.
The President is right to want reform of the US immigration system. But let us first start by demonstrating that we can fix the urgent portion of the problem, the one that prohibits us from taking full advantage of the best and brightest that the world has already sent to our shores legally: those in college; those at work in our industries. Don’t send those back. Encourage them to work here and innovate here and inspire here.
Mr. Obama also spoke about a path to citizenship for those who have broken the law. He suggested that illegals could make good if they simply paid back taxes, paid a fine, got to the back of the line and waited their turn. We’ve seen those proposals in writing and they are ridiculous. He is merely pandering to those who would vote for his party if fully enfranchised to do so.
If you truly wish to fix the immigration problem, Mr. President, do not tie it to the DREAM Act or other citizenship compromises. Fix the part that is easy. Fix the quotas, the waiting, and the arcane laws. Fix the porous border that you claim is now airtight. Last November, this issue was front and center in our collective consciousness. The State of Arizona passed their own law to defend their border because the Federal government refused to protect them. Nothing has significantly changed along the border since then to inhibit border crossings save an anemic economy to the north.
The President spoke with two tongues to tell two truths this week. With one he spun the rhetoric of the American Dream of unbridled opportunity for those who bring inspiration and imagination to America through moral and legal means. As for the other half, the story of good or bad intentions must take a back seat to the realities of the situation: illegal means illegal. Those who break the law must suffer the consequences. And the consequence of breaking the law cannot be American citizenship. The President received a lot of applause at his speech. Listen for mine: it’s the sound of one-hand clapping.
And that’s the whole truth.
“What’s the matter with kids today?” If you recall the 1963 musical “Bye, Bye Birdie,” Paul Lynde asked this question in song. It seemed that the kids of that generation (my generation, actually, and maybe yours) were good-for-nothings. “Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way,” he opined?
It has been reported earlier this year that 47% of Springfield students do not graduate from high school; and that 47% of adults in Detroit are functionally illiterate. It is yet another example of wasted youth leading to a life of underachievement. One is tempted to ask that question with emphasis: “What IS the matter with kids today?”
Fortunately, I was not disheartened by all of this news. I think our future is going to be placed into the hands of some very competent people; people of honor. I know this because I have had some wonderful experiences with youth over the years, some as recently as this past week.
For the last 25 years I have been a volunteer recruiter for my alma mater, the United States Merchant Marine Academy. During that time, I have witnessed the caliber of candidates applying for all of the academies increase in competence. They are academically, athletically, emotionally and socially better: more involved in meaningful extracurricular activities in school and community and church; curious; aware; focused. They came to Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee last Sunday to acknowledge this year’s crop of Academy appointees from Congressman Neal’s office and to explore their own options at Academy Day.
Then there was that story of the Boy Scout Troop from Louisiana who went backpacking in Arkansas when flash floods cut them off. They were overdue and the National Guard was dispatched to search for them. Not to worry: the Scouts were, as their motto says, prepared. They read the clues, sought higher ground, set up camp and waited for relief. They had plenty of food and water and had left a detailed itinerary behind. They stayed put, secure in the knowledge that either the waters would recede and they would get on their way or that they would be extracted. And extracted they were! The boys enjoyed their first helicopter ride on Tuesday morning last. Ten fingers and ten toes intact, everyone got home safe and sound. Teenagers, mostly, they stayed cool. They followed the procedures and displayed discipline enviable of a military unit. I’ve been a Boy Scout leader for many years now and it has been my distinct honor to have mentored more than a few boys in the ways of the Scout Oath and Law.
“On my honor, I will do my best, to do my duty to God and my country.”
What else can we ask of a child?
Then came Wednesday night when I addressed the Worcester Flight Academy. The audience included a Civil Air Patrol squadron with a large contingent of adolescent youth. They were impeccably dressed, well manner, attentive and eager. They were pursuing their dream of flight and had come to hear some aviation sea stories from someone almost four times their age.
If you advance the clock on this age group by no more than 10 years, there was another group of youth who made a difference in Pakistan just a week ago when a Special Forces unit brought justice to the world’s most wanted fugitive. Yet another group of young Americans who could.
This week, I read something from Aristotle. He lived some four centuries before Christ and had this observation:
“The Young People have exalted notions, because they have not been humbled by life or learned its necessary limitations; moreover, their hopeful disposition makes them think themselves equal to great things — and that means having exalted notions. They would always rather do noble deeds than useful ones: Their lives are regulated more by moral feeling than by reasoning — all their mistakes are in the direction of doing things excessively and vehemently. They overdo everything — they love too much, hate too much, and the same with everything else.”
What a week it has been. Curious high school students, accomplished Boy Scouts, proficient young aviators and brave sailors who traded their youth to honor their country, all crowded my consciousness. The conclusion is inescapable: we ARE in good hands. Let us make certain that these children succeed. Without them, our future would be very uncertain indeed.
For as the prophet Isaiah reminds us,
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.