W(h)ither America 2008: McCain’s Planetarium Politics

In his first piece as the Bureau’s political columnist, Josh Fischel breaks down McCain’s beef with stellar observatories.

John McCain hates—hates—planetariums.

Exhibit A: September 15, when asked about the earmarks Obama’s requested: “That’s nearly a million [dollars] every day, every working day he’s been in Congress. And when you look at some of the planetariums and other foolishness that he asked for, he shouldn’t be saying anything about Governor Palin.”

Exhibit B: October 7, during the second debate: “He voted for nearly $1 billion in pork barrel earmark projects. Including, by the way, $3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois.”

Never mind that McCain’s idea of an overhead projector is probably not the same as a planetarium’s idea of an overhead projector.

Why the revulsion?

Actually, it’s pretty obvious. McCain has watched those fat cat astronomers getting rich off the federal government, and he’s sick of it. Honestly, what gives them ownership over the night sky? Why, it’s plainly handouts from the federal government that allow them to buy their fancy telescopes and their…other excessive purchases that astronomers might make for their planetariums. With all the money we’re handing over to them, you’d think they were paying to light the universe themselves!

Of all the oddball things that have probably been funded through earmarks, choosing to highlight planetariums as particularly wasteful just seems weird. In fact, it seemed so weird that I figured I’d check with a few experts to make sure it wasn’t me who was missing something. I emailed Steve Sauter, the Director of the Bassett Planetarium at Amherst College, and asked him (a) whether planetariums could get by without state or federal funding and (b) whether America could do without planetariums. He replied, “Most planetariums are not-for-profit educational institutions that are woefully funded. If you accept the premise that astronomy education is important (and I do), then I can understand why a forward-looking Senator Obama would include funding for his local planetarium in an earmark.” I also emailed Jay Buckey, a former astronaut, and asked him similar questions. He said that “many people who subsequently go into science got interested at a science museum or through a science program.”

To me, McCain’s remarks reflect a Bush-like level of intellectual curiosity (read: not high) that I wish he did not possess. Part of the excitement around McCain when he ran in 2000 was that he seemed like an independent thinker. He acknowledged that global warming exists, called Dick Armey and Tom DeLay “intolerant,” and supported a minimum wage hike. Now, he’s been forced by his party—angry that they’re going to lose—to label Obama as a terrorist because he’s been on a board with William Ayers, who was a member of the Weather Underground.

But it’s a board that plots terrorist activities, right?

Well, no—it was the board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge.

Oooo, the Annenberg Foundation. According to a McCain ad out this week, that’s a “radical education foundation.”

Actually, the Challenge that former Ambassador Walter Annenberg funded provided a half billion dollars in grants to sites in several cities to study how to improve public education. When it was announced at a 1993 White House ceremony, President Clinton called it “a wonderful Christmas present to America’s children.”

Oh. But—but it’s run by Bill Ayers, a domestic terrorist!

A former domestic terrorist. And—I mean, domestic terrorist is kind of inaccurate. Terrorism implies a kind of irrational violence—promoting fear instead of a cause. Wrong as violence is either way, I’d label him a radical activist instead—and a former radical activist at that. These days, he’s a distinguished professor at the University of Illinois’s College of Education. He has advanced degrees from the Bank Street School and Teachers College—hey, wait a second. I know what you’re doing.

What? What am I doing?

You’re distracting the political conversation from decidedly more important things, like, oh, I don’t know—the economic shitstorm. Here I just spent a solid five or six hundred words trying to wound McCain on his opposition to planetariums and defend Obama on his relationship with Ayers when both subjects are ultimately inconsequential to the nation’s health. I mean, we’ve got crises with our banks, our mortgages, our credit—it’s a troubling, complicated road to hoe for whoever wins. Pretty much every breath and synapse that McCain and Palin waste on something other than the financial situation between now and November 4th puts them in a deeper hole.

But McCain can’t win on issues—it’s just not possible for Republicans to do that this year—so he has to play up character issues. He needs people to vote for him because he’s a selfless war hero and because Obama is a shifty, un-American terrorist sympathizer.

That’s horrible. If he can’t compete on issues, McCain should at least have enough honor to avoid tearing down someone who gives people hope—who excites them about government the way that planetariums excite people about science. It’s almost as though he’s bitterly clinging to his narrative because he’s frustrated at his campaign’s loss of momentum.

So what brought McCain to this precipice? David Foster Wallace nailed it, of course, at the end of the article he wrote for Rolling Stone back when he spent a week on the trail with McCain in 2000: “If he becomes a real candidate, is he still an anticandidate?” And that’s basically it, isn’t it? The red-meat needs of his party’s base have consumed his ‘maverick’ voice, and McCain has had to treat everything as good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, without nuance, like God doing all that separation on the second day, except all pissed-off. If Obama was in the same room as Ayers, Obama hates America. If an earmark helps out a planetarium, it’s still an earmark, so it’s bad. Which all sounds, unfortunately, an awful lot like “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.”

Josh Fischel lives near Boston with his wife and their dog. He teaches sixth grade humanities, and has been published in The New York Times, The Believer, and Bean Soup.