Return to Washington D.C., September 11, 2006
Part I: Fifty years of encounters with a city and nation in crisis
© Brian O’Leary, Ph.D., September 2006
The nation’s capital and I have had a five-decade-long, deep and emotional history. I suspect that many of you readers may also have stories to tell about the mysteries of your own relationship with our beloved and betrayed contemporary Rome.
From the sprawling lawns and marble buildings to the 100-to-200-year-old row houses in the poorest (black) and richest (white) sections of town, I have lived in Washington many times in many positions in many neighborhoods from suburban Maryland to Dupont Circle, from Georgetown to Capitol Hill, from the slums of North East to the three-martini lunches with lobbyists to the bag lunches with environmentalists, all the while experiencing the mood swings of the seasons from terribly hot summers to icy winters to colorful, lush, sensuous springs and autumns. Each time I lived there felt like a lifetime.
For more than fifty years as a young adult and an adult, I have intensely engaged myself with Washington, D.C. What is most poignant about these experiences is that, more than anywhere else on Earth, it attracts career-types and power-seekers and a sprinkling of altruistic souls, or a curious blend of two or all three of them. Always. It’s been said that if you’re at a cocktail party in Boston, an introduction always concerns what family you’re from and what prestigious college or university you attended. In New York it’s about your investments, publishing, promoting, advertising and entrepreneurship. In Washington, it’s about your career and position.
I know, because I was a career- and occasional power-seeker myself, constantly looking for a way to make a difference in creating a visionary, just, peaceful and sustainable future for humanity on the Earth and in space. But at the same time, my ideals had to be tempered by a kind of bland realpolitik that pervades the mythology of inside-the-Beltway thinking. After all, I had a career to protect and a living to make. During most of my Washington years, I had children to support and a mortgage to pay. It turned out it was this conflict between idealism and realism that led me to such angst, to a love-hate relationship I have felt nowhere else. I suspect this dynamic applies to some others too.
Washington for me was always a catalyst and reflector of my own aspiration as the nation’s history and my own history weaved, bobbed and meshed into and out of a volatile stew. It happened first as an optimistic teenager, then as a college graduate and space scientist, as a graduate student and high school math teacher, as a NASA astronaut, as a college professor and Vietnam war protester, as a Star Wars and space shuttle boondoggle analyst and Senate testifier, as a Congressional staff consultant and speechwriter on energy end environmental issues, as an advisor to presidential candidates on space, science and clean energy, as an industrial contractor, as a space visionary, critic and author, as a nonprofit advocate of the peaceful uses of space.
Each role I played, each position I held in Washington seemed to start with a hope, only to evolve into an entrapment and finally an exit which was only to lead to new roles and positions months to years later--back in Washington of course! As I said, this relationship is deep and karmic and may even be a codependent addiction.
Then, around 1990, I just as suddenly and unexpectedly removed myself from the scene towards what seemed to be a permanent divorce. My “last parting” happened when I stepped into unprotected wet concrete in front of a Senate office building during an innocuous brief visit during the early1990s. As I was sinking in an oozing slow-motion descent of more than a foot, I briefly envisioned no escape. Like Washington itself, I felt concretized by vested interests that carry the day. The symbolism was poignant: at some level, this kind of entrapment would endanger my future, our futures and those of our children. I had no choice but to get out of there fast.
Moments after my clumsy and embarrassing self-extraction a part of me also wanted to have left an imprint and I was tempted to stay with the action. But I didn’t. It was a nice neat hole with my shoe well-molded but too deep to be safe for future pedestrians. But I could have created my own safe one and guarded it to form a permanent imprint.
The Founding Fathers had left their imprints by falling into their own high-risk ooze, extracating themselves from it, and then creating an imprint that has endured for over 200 years. In my case I didn’t stay long enough to create or protect my imprint: the efficient workmen came back to smooth over my deep and unsafe imprint and the sidewalk returned to business as usual. I wondered how often we might risk, consciously or unconsciously, stepping into wet concrete in order to make an imprint just to have it once again obliterated by conventionality.
The fear of the unknown is scaring us away from the imprints we so passionately need to make, but somehow we don’t have the courage to take measures to fall into the concrete, then get out, and finally make and preserve an imprint of your own design. All three steps are needed to restore the republic and to redesign those parts of it to fit into today’s world. In my hilarious experience with concrete, I only did the first two steps. That wasn’t enough to make a difference. You should have seen all the serious people walking around me, some condescendingly gazing at my slapstick maneuver.
But I am getting ahead of my story. Later in this essay I’ll explain why and how I blew out of Washington for more than 15 years as if I had abruptly had a heart attack, keeled over and left this plane. Call it outrage fatigue. But I’m back now just as suddenly, seeking to penetrate this unsettled marriage with my native land and its capital. I expect many of you can relate to the ambivalence and mystery of this relationship, because Washington symbolizes this thrashing giant of a nation made up of our collective power and greed, a nexus of our hopes and our fears. Right now fear has taken over the national agenda.
The point I’m leading to is, my own history with Washington and every thinking person’s relationship with the United States is filled with such possibility, disillusionment, complexity, contradictions, betrayals, narcissisms, obfuscations, power lusts, and for me, an emotional roller-coaster ride like I have experienced nowhere else.
For the sake of simplicity I divide my own history with Washington D.C. into the following six epochs: (1) my (our) optimistic patriotic high of the post-World War II years, mostly during the 1950s, (2) the Camelot years of JFK and the Apollo program during the sixties, (3) the critical interventions, political aspirations, and visions of a peaceful, sustainable and futuristic expansion into space during the 1970s, (4) confrontations with neoconservative visions such as Star Wars during the 1980s, (5) “outrage fatigue” during the 1990s until now, and (6) a return to “take back Washington” with kindred spirits who want to restore and improve the republic starting on September 11, 2006.
This essay explores how my history and our collective history could mesh to create new visions of a nation now under seige, not by Muslim terrorists, but by our criminal “leaders” housed in Washington, D.C. and their obsequious followers. They must not only be removed, we must also formulate an alternative vision that will facilitate the transition and to ensure our survival. To do any less than that would be to abrogate our responsibilities as citizens of the most powerful and sick nation ever on Earth.
First the history, then some insights based on my experiences and my research:
The 1950s. These were the years of the “The High” expressed by William Strauss and Neil Howe in their brilliant and prophetic book The Fourth Turning. We all liked Ike and felt a great promise and power of a victorious nation in peace and prosperity at last. This meshed well with the optimism and impressionability of a young teenager climbing the stairs of the Washington Monument and gazing in awe at the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials and the Capitol Rotunda, and the majestic White House housing a good man.
During those years, I became an Eagle Scout, and was an honors student growing up outside of Boston. My patriotism and pride were unswerving, especially when Sputnik went up in 1957. To answer to call to the space race, I enrolled with half the freshman class as a physics major at Williams College, aspiring to become a space scientist and astronaut.
The 1960s. This optimistic but turbulent decade began with the Camelot years of John F. Kennedy, but later rudely punctuated by his assassination and the Vietnam War. Yet I clung to my optimistic call to expand our destiny into outer space. In June 1961, JFK made his historic speech to joint Congress: “I believe that, by the end of the decade, we should land a man on the Moon…as a nation we shall not floundah in the backwash..”
The timing was perfect for me. I was just graduating from college and so moved to Washington to work at NASA, which was just created by the JFK vision and growing fast. I got on the ground floor of a wonderful, expansive enterprise called Apollo.
These times were not without their challenges for me. The Vietnam War was heating up, and I was almost drafted, having passed my pre-induction physical a mere week before showing up at Fort Dix. But enrolling as an astronomy graduate student at Georgetown University, I pleaded with my draft board that my role as a professional space scientist was more valuable to the nation than being in the infantry. It worked: in an unprecedented move, the draft board gave me a student deferment.
As an Irishman, I sometimes led the wild life, organizing whiskey sour parties at cherry blossom season sunrise and throwing empty beer cans into a dry bird bath three stories down from a bachelor pad some of us guys shared. I then wrote a play satirizing the Georgetown astronomy department. A fellow student working for the CIA, true to his colors, leaked the script to the department chairman, whereupon I was thrown out with a Masters degree as consolation. I recall donning a black robe and tall conical wizard hat with the moon, Saturn and stars during my comprehensive exam.
Needing a job, I taught math for a few months at Washington’s Calvin Coolidge High School learning about the realities of a half-black, half-white neighborhood in a rough sector of the city. commuting across town every morning rush hour, preparing lessons at the many red lights on the way, and exercising the credo that the teacher must always stay a step ahead of the students.
I met Robert F. Kennedy at a Thanksgiving dinner in 1962, where he laughed hysterically at a recent record release of Vaughn Meader’s parody of the Kennedys. They were human, and they could laugh at themselves.
Then in November 1963, JFK was assassinated, which sent shivers and shocks across the nation and most of all Washington, where I could walk down the block to see the solemn procession of his casket roll by, lending a poignant reality to the horror.
After getting married in 1964, we moved on to graduate school at Berkeley, where I completed a Ph.D. in astronomy and planetary science. In 1967, I went on to become an astronaut, the first appointed to go to Mars. My meteoric career at the ripe young age of 27 brought me back to Washington triumphantly as a potential hero, respected and admired—and a bit inflated by ego.
This was short-lived, however, and the war in Vietnam preempted my space dreams. In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson cancelled the Mars program and the later Apollo flights. I quit and retreated to become an assistant professor of astronomy and space science at Cornell University alongside the famous astronomers Carl Sagan, Tommy Gold and Frank Drake. I was once again working with NASA involved in exciting planetary missions, frequently going to NASA in Washington in a positive way, ever building my career and supporting the peaceful uses in space.
But my optimism was to be further deflated by the assassinations of RFK and Martin Luther King, our escalation in Vietnam, and the dwindling Apollo program excitement. Toward the turning of the decade, hubris and militarism were beginning to replace the optimism.
The 1970s. This complex relationship with Washington then became much more intimate, intense and confrontive during the 1970s, a time of uncertainty about career and ambivalence about the nation’s destiny. It began with a protest against Nixon’s illegal invasion of Cambodia. In April 1970, with two other Cornell professors, we locked arms and walked between a line of bus-barricades towards the White House, risking arrest from our civil disobedience. Instead, we were invited into the White House to air our grievances to some of Nixon’s staff. It was there I felt the mystique of the king’s palace where you could hear a pin drop, that odd mixture of awed silence and indignation. That night, I appeared with other protesters as the lead story on CBS Evening News, and it felt good to be able to express in this way, to be part of our inevitable withdrawal from Vietnam. These well-publicized protests didn’t only help end the war, they began to reveal the corruptions of a White House immortalized by the Watergate scandal.
It’s sad that these kinds of expressions opposing the government are no longer possible. The imperial hubris in Washington is now legendary, the stakes are higher and the mainstream media are shut down from dissent. The Vietnam protest experience was a precursor, as we seek new strategies and innovations such as free energy to break the ice. Protesting wouldn’t be enough. We would have to articulate a vision no politician or media pundit seems to be able to give us. Washington has been calcified now and we should take it back before it’s too late.
Vietnam was not the only seed of my discontent. NASA was losing its former visionary luster and falling into bureaucratic mendacity. With no goals beyond the lunar landing, it became embroiled into creating multibillion-dollar miasmas such as the space shuttle, space station, and an increasing militarism. I objected to this direction, often testifying about it to U.S. Senate committees. This did not win any friends within NASA. I moved on to teaching and researching technology assessment, energy policy and national scientific priorities as a professor at the University of California Berkeley Law School, San Francisco State University and Hampshire College.
In 1975, I was appointed senior staff consultant on energy to the late Rep. Morris Udall’s Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment and as a policy advisor and speechwriter to Udall when he ran for president. I felt a safe haven as an emerging environmentalist opposed to the perils of nuclear power, in concert with Udall and most of the Democratic congressional majority.
But my Udall job took its toll. The other top advisors were Dexadrine-popping, power-hungry insomniacs who wanted me to work long hours too, while the candidate flew figure-8s around the country campaigning vainly against the implacable power structures in Washington, of which he was unwittingly a part of. The last time spent with Udall was preparing him for a speech he gave at Boston’s historic Fannuel Hall, briefing him in his motel room on the talking points as he shoveled breakfast into his mouth half asleep.
Udall’s wife had had it, and so had mine. He later pulled out of the race and its crazy-making while my wife began to pull out of our marriage, and so I moved into a tiny basement apartment on Capitol Hill. and hung in there at a job that stressed me so much that I ended up weekly on a psychiatrist’s couch for a few months, personally feeling worn out. What I learned from this experience was that, even if you were on the ethical side of an issue, power still corrupts and those who are more ambitions and ruthless were the ones that rise to the top. It was time to leave Washington once again.
In 1976, I emerged as a physics faculty member at Princeton University, taking frequent trips to Washington with my senior colleague Gerard K. O’Neill, working with NASA to envision the peaceful settlement and industrialization of space using lunar and asteroidal materials. Alongside the planetary, satellite communications and Earth resources programs, these initiatives were still segments of NASA that provided hope for the future. My relationship with Washington again renewed, albeit short-lived, as once again, the militarists took over. Ronald Reagan was elected president, and the neo-conservatives pervaded every level of activity that competed with ours. NASA, Congress and what was to become the Department of Energy had lost their visions and I once again withdrew from Washington for another several years.
On one raw March day around 1981, the renowned physicist Freeman Dyson and I pulled out of Washington’s Union Station on Amtrak heading home to Princeton after a scientific meeting. Barely minutes out of the station the train suddenly jumped off the track as we thumped along the washboard cross-ties and gravel and started to lurch over to the side. People screamed and some had been injured during the derailing. After attending to some of the injured passengers, we all walked over to a Budweiser brewery where we awaited buses to take us back to the station for the next train. This experience once again catalyzed my deep desire to stay the heck away from Washington. When would I ever learn, I asked myself.
The 1980s. In 1982 I moved to California and began working at the premier military-and-space contractor Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). While I refused to do military or Star Wars work, I did seek contracts on civilian NASA business, designing human Mars missions and space stations. One again I was commuting to Washington. Once again, I was in the military-industrial complex. The job was lucrative, helping to send my kids to college, but my stubborn resistance to military work led to my being laid off four years into my employment just prior to being vested in my retirement plan.
I was replaced by a former colonel in the U.S. Air Force Space Command who passed through the revolving door of retirement to SAIC as the world expert on post-SYOP nuclear blast detection from space. He pulled in the millions earmarked to study the strategic options the military might take after an all-out nuclear war. What a use for taxpayer money! I also attended a small company briefing in Washington we gave to former secretaries of defense Robert MacNamara, Clark Clifford, Melvin Laird and Howard Brown, as well as neoconservatives Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz. It was a creepy experience. These powerful people, who were well paid to attend, looked and acted darkly robotic.
Once again, I pulled out of the insanity of it all. At that point I gave up all work for the defense industry. Suddenly unemployed, I worried a lot about money at first, but eventually adjusted to a new life as a freelance author and speaker. Here is my advice to those of you considering some form of noncooperation or blowing the whistle at the risk of losing your job. Fear not, you will find other work to do which is much happier. Please, for the sake of the world, get out and join us. The truth will set you free.
In 1987 Washington beckoned me again, this time the Institute for Cooperation and Security in Space (ISCOS, now ICIS). I was appointed as an unpaid board chairman and came to Washington almost monthly for meetings at their Logan Circle headquarters. Here I witnessed FBI agents pursuing us as we voiced our objections to Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars program to weaponize space. We also supported Jesse Jackson in 1988 in his California Democratic Primary campaign (which he almost won) to convert the aerospace industry to helping create new jobs in the energy, the environment and other domestic priorities. Along with ISCOS president Carol Rosin, Senator Tom Harkin and some Soviet cosmonauts, we set up legislation for joint human missions into space as an indication that former enemies can become friends.
Toward the end of the 1980s I became a citizen diplomat during the dawn of Soviet Glasnost, speaking at the Soviet-American Citizens Summit in Washington, going to the USSR to share with their Space Institute scientists a concept for a joint missions to Mars, taking a peace cruise down the Dnieper River in the Ukraine, and traveling to China as encounters with friendly people everywhere, free of the illusions of geopolitics and power games.
But when George Bush senior settled into his administration, the struggle to restore and renew the republic seemed uphill, so once again I plotted to withdraw from this crazy capital, this time I hoped for good. I had to stop this addiction. One of my final gigs was attending a Star Wars meeting with 1000 contract-hungry male besuited industrialists gathered at an Arlington, Virginia hotel down the street from the Pentagon. We listened to Dr. Edward Teller, a Dr. Strangelove archetype with bushy eyebrows and a Hungarian accent, the father of the hydrogen bomb. He presented his vision of X-ray laser weapons in space that could zap anybody anywhere any time on Earth.
Even though by this point I was on the outside looking in, I said, this was it. The neocons were beginning to take over the government, and there seemed to be little we could do about it. I vowed never to come back to Washington, except as a neutral observer or for social visits. The permanent war and oil economy had won again, and I was suffering once again from outrage fatigue.
Meanwhile I joined many others exploring the unfolding consciousness revolution that could provide us with the very practices and technologies we will need for the coming transformation. Washington was not a crucible for innovations. It is concretized.
The 1990s, the Millennium and post-9-11. I now entered the greatest void time with respect to Washington, except for a few short visits to friends. This was when I walked in front of the Senate office buildings and stepped into wet concrete which almost gripped me permanently. My awkward almost-panicked self-extracation and the desire to leave an imprint was to haunt me for years to come. I began to realize that the job of restoring the republic requires great risk-taking and confrontation, getting out of the old situation while embracing new creative possibilities, and having the staying power to preserve the new creation and the re-creation to form and sustain a healthy collective.
My clumsy stuckness seemed to symbolize human encounters with the corruption all around mankind. From the Reagan years to Bush 1 to Clinton to Bush 2, I refused to go there any longer for any professional or activist purpose. The collective was unraveling and ready to go into crisis mode. I needed to be physically detached in order to make a sane evaluation of whatever choices we might have for the future.
And this freed me to do other things, like study the potential of new energy, new science and consciousness. For example, studies show that, for the price of one day’s fighting in Iraq or two days of profit for Exxon-Mobil, we could research, develop and deploy clean, cheap new energy for a sustainable future. I didn’t need Washington, and it didn’t seem to need me. Moving there could only be an impediment to progress, and so Meredith and I moved further and further away, until I have settled in the Andes of Ecuador, founding Montesuenos, a new retreat center for peace, sustainability, the arts and new science. It is in this kind of setting where a new republic can be founded, for we not only need to return to the wisdom of our founding fathers, as embodied in the Constitution, but we need to become more global now, throwing away old tyrannies and setting a new set of principles which will take us through the transformations we will need to make.
My last employment before leaving the country was teaching yoga to children in a public school. Ironically both the school and we were located in Washington. California. To get the job I had to sign an oath of allegiance to the U.S. Constitution. This oath is required for public employees. At the moment of signing, I felt proud not only because I agreed with the document, but the fact that nothing about the oath says anything about obeying the illegitimate regime now in Washington D.C. I realized also I might have to come back once again to the nation’s capital to defend and protect the Constitution in other ways. Here I am, two years later, ready to stand up and do just that.
The world nowadays is different from that of the Founding Fathers. We must not only restore the system, we will have to remove all weapons of mass destruction from the Earth, stop our carbon and particulate emissions, and replace war and ecological destruction with initiatives such as new energy, which promise to end our dependence on polluting energy.
Unfortunately, those in charge don’t want to do that. They suppress new directions and may have violently destroyed the dreams of visionaries like my colleague Dr. Eugene Mallove, editor of Infinite Energy Magazine. Mallove was brutally murdered in 2004, probably by those whose feel their interests are compromised by embracing the new. His bold visions were not appreciated by the vested powers, cashing in on the bonanza of their lives while pulling everybody else down. A prime example was Vice President Dick Cheney’s infamous secret energy task force, made up of the friendly folks at Enron, Halliburton, Big Oil and Big Coal.
Most of all, I must return to Washington to express and interact with other citizens. I cannot run away for life. Many of us have also taken the first two steps: (1) to risk confronting the powers-that-be (stepping into the wet concrete) and (2) to remove their grip on us (getting out of the old paradigm before being trapped). It is time now to make a third step, that is, to leave an impression.
I am coming back to Washington to help restore the republic, expand it to its proper global stature, and embrace new visions which could truly end war, injustice, and ecological destruction. My hope in our citizen action is that scores of other citizens will “get it” and we can together build a new world while preserving the precious beauty of all of nature and our beloved and betrayed republic.
In Part II of this series, we’ll see what happens when I come back to Washington for the fifth anniversary of September 11.
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