Neil Armstrong and the death of American dreaming



There's a word for this in politics: Bad optics.

For example, it's certainly won't be good optics for the Republican Party to be holding its convention in Tampa, along the Gulf Coast, while the bottom of the TV screen shows a strengenthing hurricane bearing down on New Orleans. While it's true that the botched response to 2005's Hurricane Katrina cut across every level of government and party lines, it's the initial seeming indifference of a Republican president, George W. Bush, looking helplessly out an airplace window that many still voters remember.

But you can also make the case that Saturday's death of pioneering astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon,in 1969, is bad optics for both parries as they finally move into their long-awaited political conventions. The news that Armstrong has passed at age 82 is also a reminder to the body politic of the America that we've slowly lost over the last half-century, an America that once dared to reach for impossible dreams.

Today, the mission to the moon that caused the earth below to ground to a virtual stop on July 20, 1969, seems an artifact from ancient U.S. history, like paddle-wheel steamboats or the Pony Express. The American space program was massively expensive -- a whopping 3.5 percent of the federal budget -- but even in an era of great social unrest most citizens felt NASA was worth the cost, both in the scientific discovery and invention it fostered and in the intense pride it caused among Americans.

That speaks to something we've somehow lost in the decades since then. Nations are a lot people -- if they don't dream big dreams and chase after them, they become one of the walking dead.

In the most narrow sense, it's remarkable that America and the rest of the world stopping sending people to the moon, or beyond, in 1972. The NASA program has its moments since then -- most notably, the thrilling pictures sent  back from Mars by the rover Curiosity -- butspace enthusiasts agree the program is a shadow ot its former self.

In 2010, Armstrong himself made a rare public appearance to criticize NASA's budget. He said: ""If the leadership we have acquired through our investment is simply allowed to fade away, other nations will surely step in where we have faltered. I do not believe that this would be in our best interests."

Those cuts were not authored by the anti-big-government Tea Party. They came from the pen of President Barack Obama.

But the Americam dream doesn't have to be conquering outer space. It could be assuming the mantle of global leadership on alternative energy and reducing greenhouse gases, or re-inventing transportation or -- heaven forbid -- conquering the poverty of our inner space, our crime-ridden cities.

There are no such dreams in 2012, the year of Neil Armstrong's passing. We just have two political parties, one that has abandoned the idea of shared purpose and ambition for Ayn Rand's gospel of selffishness, and one that supports a moon-mission-like focus on ideas like better schools or wind power only in empty words, never in courageous deeds.

Think of the symbolism.

In an American summer 43 years ago, we sat in thrall to a countdown clock that marked down the seconds to Armstrong's epic first footprint in the lunar dust.

This week, we will watch a parade of Republicans speaking under a different kind of clock, a count-up clock tracing their small-minded obsessiion with the national debt, the digital glow of their determination to follow Europe's failed programs of austerity off a fiscal cliff, a poverty of ideas celebrating the final victory of what Franklin Delano Roosevelt called "fear itself."

This is why we mourn so deeply for the passing of Neil Armstrong. It's not only that our nation lost a great man on Saturday. It's also that we don't want to see the great notion of American dreams buried along with him.