National Commentary

Evoking a New ‘Sputnik Moment’

bentonmug

Who knows who’s listening for what, but in my careful real-time examination of President Obama’s State of the Union message Tuesday night – replete with a transcript and notation pen in hand, and braced for the worst – what I heard actually soothed these very liberal ears.

Who knows who’s listening for what, but in my careful real-time examination of President Obama’s State of the Union message Tuesday night – replete with a transcript and notation pen in hand, and braced for the worst – what I heard actually soothed these very liberal ears.

So, what’s up with all the punditry saying that Obama’s speech marked a “move to the political middle” that will piss off his left-leaning supporters? That interpretation comes across like a lot of self-fulfilling prophecy and maybe more smoke and mirrors designed to turn the President’s base away from him.

Some of the sharp edges were taken off the rhetoric, but the President really said almost nothing different from what he’s said in each of the previous two years’ speeches. In fact, in reiterating one of his main “stimulus” themes from earlier SOTU remarks, this time Obama ratcheted it up a notch when he said, “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”

Maybe this phrase didn’t catch on because the preponderance of today’s pundits are too young or uneducated to remember the “freak out” that swept the U.S. when the news spread on that crisp Friday, Oct. 4, 1957, day: the Soviet Union had successfully launched and placed into orbit for the first time in human history an artificial satellite, Sputnik 1.

Having a newspaper route as a young adolescent at that time, I followed closely the headlines every day as the U.S. scrambled for a response, and a wave of extraordinary measures were launched to boost science and technology education programs in the nation’s schools, top to bottom.

Still aspiring after a major league baseball career, I was unsettled that I’d have to knuckle under and study rocket science. As it turned out, the muscular national response to Sputnik was very instrumental for my older brother’s destiny.

As one who loved 3-D movies and taking apart the household toaster, my brother’s interests were immediately recognized at his high school and he was thrust toward entering Science Fairs, aided by the strong sign painting talents of our Aunt Betty.

Lo and behold, Steve wound up entering MIT, was taken under wing by Polaroid’s Dr. Edwin H. Land, got his Ph.D. from Harvard, and co-founded MIT’s Media Lab, discovering “white light holography” in the process before his untimely passing in 2003. Those knowledgeable of his work remember well Dr. Steven A. Benton.

The “Sputnik moment” reached right down into our small town, California, home. So the phrase resonates with me, and we can only hope that what President Obama is talking about now even remotely matches the national effort that followed that day in the fall of 1957. The nation entered the “Space Race” and within 12 years had roared past the Soviets in that race to put a man on the moon.

This week, the President said, “Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race. In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet and create countless new jobs for our people.”

Today it’s not the Soviet Union, it is China that is eating America’s lunch, especially with aggressive infrastructure development projects in the Third World, most notably Africa. China will own Africa within a decade unless the U.S. shifts gears toward the kind of development thrust Obama referred to Tuesday.

The Republicans, predictably, are reacting to Obama’s speech by insisting “investment” is just a code word for “more government spending.” Why, yes it is, which is why I took heart in what he said.

But today’s Republicans are also clueless about history, about how it was their darlings Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln who were the nation’s primary architects seeing to the implementation of public investment in the national infrastructure of canals, railroads and land-grant colleges that grew the nation to global preeminence. And it was another of their own, President Eisenhower, who led the national mobilization in response to that first “Sputnik moment.”


Nicholas Benton may be emailed at nfbenton@fcnp.com

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