An Open Letter to the American People
You may remember that, 3 1/2 years ago, a certain comet which bore my name was shining in the nighttime skies. You may also remember that around that time I exhibited a tendency to speak my mind on issues I consider important, such as the career opportunities for current and future scientists, and the compelling need to improve science education in our society. Much of this latter was oriented around combating the massive amounts of pop culture pseudo-science associated with the comet, which culminated in the tragedy of the Heaven's Gate suicides. In the press statement I issued after that event became public I challenged everyone to think of ways to make this a better world for the new Millennium.
You heard me out on all those occasions, and I am asking you to hear me out once more. I am writing to express my thoughts about the upcoming Presidential election. This may sound a bit like an overworked cliche, but I honestly believe that this election is one of the most important we will ever face in our lifetime. The decision we make next week will have effects which will reverberate throughout our nation and our overall human society for many decades to come, long after the winner of the election leaves office.
I'll be honest and up-front: I have endorsed, am supporting, and will be voting for Al Gore. I'd like to explain why I am doing so, and to encourage all of you to do the same. In any event, regardless of whether or not you agree with me, I ask that you help spread this message around to anyone and everyone you know.
First off, a couple of disclaimers. Everything I write here is my own personal opinion; it should not in any way be construed as representing the opinions of the Southwest Institute for Space Research, New Mexico State University, or any other institution or organization with which I am or have ever been affiliated or associated.
Secondly, I am one of those independent voters who John McCain spoke to so eloquently during the Republican primaries. Although I am a registered Democrat and vote that way more often than not, I have on numerous occasions voted for Republican candidates when I have believed that they were the better qualified for the offices in question. Furthermore, on many issues I share viewpoints in common with those of the Green Party, and I also share viewpoints on some issues in common with those of the Libertarian Party; there have been occasions when I have voted for candidates in both these parties. I point all this out to show that the thoughts I am expressing are not from a partisan viewpoint, but are instead the results of a carefully researched and thought-out consideration of a number of different issues.
The next President of the U.S. will have to face and confront numerous and enormous issues on both the domestic and international fronts. The U.S. economy is indeed running about as strongly as it ever has, although let's be honest and admit there are many people in our society who have not been able to participate in this. Furthermore, we can not expect that the economic picture will always be so rosy; things change, and not always for the better. On the international front, we live in a complex, volatile, and ever- shrinking world, and there will always be political crises going on which can affect us in any number of ways. The current confrontation between the Israelis and the Palestinians is only one example of this. There will be others during the years to come; count on it.
In this election we are not electing a fishing buddy. We are electing a President who will have to confront and overcome these often unpredictable challenges on a daily basis, and we need someone who has the intelligence, knowledge, experience, and skills to be able to do so. Think of the election not as a popularity contest, but rather as a job interview. In my mind, there is no doubt, based upon his achievements during a lifelong career of public service, that Al Gore possesses the qualifications it takes to be President and to lead this nation through the challenges that lie ahead. While I won't go so far as to say that George Bush is completely lacking in these qualifications, he certainly does not possess them to the extent that Al Gore does.
What I'd like to do now is explore some issues that are of significant importance to me and, I would hope, to all of you as well.
To paraphrase Dr. McCoy from the original Star Trek series, "Damn it, I'm a scientist, not an economist." I freely admit that I am not an economics expert, and I can get lost very easily when the discussion turns to the details of whose economic plan is better. I do know, however, that I don't enjoy paying taxes any more than anybody else, and I dread what I have to do by April 15 each year as much as anyone. What irks me even more than paying taxes, however, is the knowledge that a significant fraction of the taxes I pay does absolutely nothing except pay interest on the national debt that was quadrupled during the Reagan and Bush, Sr. administrations. However much the idea of tax cuts might appeal to me personally, until such time as the national debt can be reduced to a more manageable level I believe it is premature to be discussing these seriously. It goes without saying, of course, that no Presidential candidate who doesn't promise a tax cut of some kind will ever get elected.
I am not expert enough to be able to discuss much of the relative merits and drawbacks of Al Gore's and George Bush's respective economic plans. However, Al Gore is the only one who appears to be willing to discuss reduction and elimination of the national debt in any kind of meaningful sense, and the economic analyses I have read indicate that his plan has by far the better chance of accomplishing this important goal. Think of all we could do with the money that we wouldn't have to spend on paying that interest; we could certainly feed and house a lot of those people who are living below the poverty line and, if we chose to, we might even be able to afford a couple more of those space missions I'm so fond of.(Just to put things in perspective, the amount of tax dollars spent on national debt interest -- i.e., wasted on accomplishing nothing this past year was almost seventeen times the entire NASA budget.) Most importantly, though, we'd finally be able to afford a real, deep, well-deserved and much-needed reduction in our income taxes.
I have two sons who are in the public school system here in New Mexico, and like any other parent education is an important issue to me. I can believe that both Al Gore and George Bush are sincere in their statements concerning the importance with which they view education of our children, and both of their respective education plans have merits. However, during the third Presidential debate Al Gore said something which struck a strong chord with me, when he pointed out that there are school districts which can't get bond issues passed because the parents are always outvoted by other residents who don't have children, and how such districts should be able to turn to some federal support. That is precisely the situation in the school district I live in, where on two recent occasions the district has unsuccessfully attempted to pass a bond issue to replace an outdated high-school facility. Although there is a tremendous amount of local support for this effort, on both occasions we were outvoted by a well-organized opposition led by individuals who don't even reside in the district full-time but who nevertheless own some property here and have registered to vote here. (We're trying a third time in December.) Perhaps under Al Gore's plan there's a reasonable possibility that my sons would be able to attend high school in a building that's not going to fall apart around them.
One element in George Bush's plan deeply disturbs me, and that is the fact that it mandates state-funded vouchers, despite what he said during the third Presidential debate. (The fact that he denied that his plan mandates vouchers when it clearly does tells me that he was either lying, or else that he doesn't understand the details of his own plan; neither of these possibilities is very comforting.) First off, vouchers drain badly-needed funds away from the public schools. Secondly, although there have been conflicting court rulings on this issue and it will eventually have to be decided by the Supreme Court, the majority of rulings to date have stated that vouchers are an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state in that they permit the public funding of private sectarian religious education. I certainly do not want my tax dollars to be used for such purposes.
There is no question in my mind that Al Gore is far and away the better candidate when it comes to dealing with environmental issues. He has thoroughly researched and has become especially literate in the many complexities involved in this issue, and he has been championing the importance of this for many, many years. The charges I have occasionally read that he is an "extremist" when it comes to the environment are completely unfounded; I am convinced that he fully understands the importance of balancing economic issues with environmental issues. But we must remember that Earth -- for now, at least -- is the only planet we have, and the decisions we make regarding how to manage the environment affect everyone on this planet and will do so for many generations to come.
The recently released summary report from the U.N. scientific panel examining the phenomenon of global warming is a strong case in point. To be sure, there may well be other factors (besides man-made atmospheric emissions) that come into play, and we can argue about the relative importance and effects of these factors, but there is no doubt that we are continuing to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and that the planet's average temperature is increasing. Al Gore has understood this for many years, and has diligently devoted himself to trying to bring this problem under control. By contrast, George Bush, as evidenced by his answer to this question during the third Presidential debate, appears to me to be adopting an attitude of head-in-the-sand denial. His environmental record in Texas which ranks 49th among the states in environmental spending and where, for example, Houston has now surpassed Los Angeles as the nation's smoggiest city only reinforces this.
I'll be up-front: I'm against the death penalty. Yes, I know that Al Gore supports it. And yes, I admit that the individuals who dragged James Byrd to death behind a pick-up truck because of his race, and those who tortured and killed Matthew Shepard because of his sexual orientation, make pretty good advertisements for the death penalty, and I firmly believe that society has every right to protect itself from those who do such things. (Of course, it might be more cost- effective, both financially and emotionally, to invest more resources into preventing the conditions and attitudes which lead to this kind of behavior in the first place.) But in any event, however horrible these crimes may be, this pales to the spectre of the government's putting an innocent person to deliberate death; this is nothing less than state-decreed and state-sanctioned murder, and if we allow it to happen, we are all accomplices.
This is not an unrealistic fantasy. Gov. George Ryan of Illinois a death-penalty supporter -- was forced by his conscience to issue a moratorium on the death penalty after independent investigations revealed that over a dozen of the death-row inmates in his state were innocent of the crimes for which they had been sentenced to die. But in what I can only think of as a further and unconscionable act of head-in-the-sand denial, George Bush claims that nothing of the sort has happened in Texas. This claim is almost ludicrous beyond belief, especially when one considers the nature of the assembly-line execution business in that state. This system, wherein such practices as unqualified public defenders falling asleep during trials and "forgetting" to present any witnesses or mitigating circumstances are nevertheless deemed "full access to the courts," has been soundly condemned from all over the world, including, for example, from Amnesty International. It is inevitable that these practices will sooner or later lead to an innocent person's being put to death, if indeed it hasn't happened already (and there is good reason to believe that this has in fact occurred see http://www.salonmag.com/politics2000/feature/2000/05/11/bush/).
A currently breaking story gives a further scathing indictment of the criminal justice system in Texas. Apparently, a convicted criminal wrote Gov. Bush in early 1998 confessing to a rape-robbery- murder which had been committed some years earlier, and provided details to back up his confession that have since been substantiated. It turns out that two other individuals were already serving life sentences for this crime, although it appears that one of them was coerced into confessing, pleading guilty, and implicating his friend by being threatened with the death penalty if he didn't tell the law enforcement officials what they wanted to hear. (The abuse of the death penalty in such situations is another reason why I'm against it.) Despite the almost inescapable conclusion that two innocent men are rotting in prison for a crime they didn't commit, in the 2 1/2 years since the Bush administration in Texas has had this called to their attention they have done absolutely nothing to correct this travesty of justice. Is this the type of behavior we can expect from a Bush presidency?
In the second Presidential debate George Bush was almost gleeful in discussing the death penalty, and he has publicly ridiculed Karla Tucker's pleas for clemency. This type of callousness, especially in light of the abominable criminal justice system in his state, makes a mockery of the entire idea of "compassionate" conservatism and has no place in the White House or anywhere else in government.
Ostensibly, we live in a religiously pluralistic society. As long as other people allow me to live and practice my beliefs in peace I am more than willing to return the favor. Most of the people I encounter are indeed willing to live and let live in this matter, and that works perfectly well all the way around.
The religious right in this country, however, appears to have different ideas, and to me they won't be satisfied until they have forced everyone else in the country to abide by their practices. At face value, this doesn't bother me too much, since they have as much right to espouse their ideas as anyone else. What does bother me, however, is that so many of the elected officials in this country -- primarily, but not limited to, some of those in the Republican Party -- appear to be embracing these same coercive attitudes. For examples, I can cite the efforts to pass the grossly misnamed Religious Freedom Amendment (perhaps more properly called the "Religious Coercion Amendment," as I've seen it referred to); efforts to mandate the posting of the Ten Commandments in schools and other public buildings despite a 1980 Supreme Court ruling specifically stating that this practice is unconstitutional; efforts to pass legislation denying the recovery of attorney's fees to winning plaintiffs in church-state separation cases; and the outcry from many of these individuals lambasting the entirely correct Supreme Court ruling in this year's Santa Fe, Texas school prayer case.
George Bush has publicly stated his personal religious beliefs many times; he has every right to do so, and I have no trouble believing that he is sincere. What bothers me, however, is that he has been courting religious right groups such as the Christian Coalition and, to put it bluntly, he owes them favors. For example, consider how the religious right mobilized to vote for George Bush in the South Carolina Republican primary after it became clear that John McCain was running a credible campaign. What is especially telling is that Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson has allegedly stated that he would rather have seen Al Gore elected President than John McCain. Since John McCain and George Bush were not drastically different when it came to the issues -- although, in my opinion, John McCain was a much better Presidential candidate -- I can only conclude that this was because George Bush was kowtowing to the Christian Coalition, and John McCain wasn't.
What is also telling is that one of George Bush's principal campaign advisors is Ralph Reed, former Executive Director of the Christian Coalition and who was in a significant way responsible for the takeover of both houses of Congress by the Republican Party (including several religious right ideologues) in the 1994 election. Ralph Reed's boastful statements about his campaign strategies are especially chilling: "I want to be invisible. I do guerilla warfare. I paint my face and travel at night. You don't know it's over until you're in a body bag. You don't know until election night." Although I haven't seen too much discussion of this topic in the course of this year's Presidential election, the presence of Ralph Reed and his legacy of "stealth" candidacies give me a great deal of concern about what kinds of legislation might get passed and signed if George Bush is elected President and (as appears likely) Republicans control at least one house of Congress. The metaphor of the Trojan Horse (as I've seen at least one person phrase it) comes to mind.
THE SUPREME COURT
No one can know for sure, but it is quite likely that the next President will get to appoint at least two, and possibly as many as four or five, justices to the Supreme Court. Since Supreme Court appointments are for life, these decisions by the next President will affect the personal lives of Americans for decades to come.
George Bush has stated that he considers as models for his potential Supreme Court appointments justices such as Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. I find this prospect very disturbing, since these two justices in particular have shown great hostility to concepts such as separation of church and state, freedom of dissenting political speech, environmental protection, and women's rights. Al Gore, on the other hand, has cited as his model former justice Harry Blackmun, a justice who showed consistent strong support for personal liberties and church-state separation.
Keep in mind that if, as appears likely, Republicans retain control of the Senate, it is almost certain that any Supreme Court appointments that George Bush might make will be approved. Keep in mind also that the President also makes judicial appointments to many lower Appellate and District Courts, and that the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee have held up numerous appointments to these courts that have been made by President Clinton.
Along these lines, let me also point out that on numerous occasions, including in the Presidential debates, George Bush has stated that he trusts the American people, not the government, to make the decisions that affect their lives. This "trust," however, does not seem to apply to half of the American population when it comes to personal decisions affecting their own bodies, and it is rather probable that any judicial appointments George Bush might make, both to the Supreme Court and elsewhere, will feel the same way.
Al Gore is not a perfect human being. (I challenge anyone to produce any person who is.) I also admit that there are some issues where I part ways with Al Gore. Nevertheless, it is very clear to me that Al Gore possesses the right and necessary qualifications to be President, and I have every reason to believe that he would serve admirably and responsibly in that office. George Bush, on the other hand, scares me. He may be a likable person, and he may be well- meaning, but I am extremely concerned about what could happen to our nation in its international affairs, to the national debt, to the environment, and to personal and religious liberty, should he be elected President. He has asked us to examine his record in Texas; I have done so, and I do not like what I see. With the stakes as high in this election as they are, I do not believe we can take the chance of a Bush presidency, especially when we have someone as qualified and as responsive to our needs as Al Gore.
I'd like to make a special plea to the supporters of Ralph Nader and the Green Party. As I stated a lot earlier, I believe in many of the same things you believe in. Al Gore may not embody as many of these ideals as you might like, but I believe that he is nevertheless responsive to what you say and will work together with you to accomplish many of the things we all would like. (For example, as I pointed out earlier he has been championing responsible management of the environment for as long as almost anyone.) I am quite certain, on the other hand, that George Bush will not be responsive to you, and will set back many of your desired goals, perhaps irreparably.
While you may not like to admit it, in our winner-take-all electoral system a vote for Ralph Nader is essentially a vote for George Bush. Even the Bush supporters know this, and I'm sure you're aware that they are airing advertisements containing excerpts of Ralph Nader's comments criticizing Al Gore (and conveniently neglecting those comments critical of George Bush) so that voters will not vote for Gore. In effect, you are being used, to accomplish ends quite antithetical to the ideals you believe in. Please do not allow this to happen. I know this may be difficult for you to do, and under normal circumstances it would be almost criminal for me to ask except that these are not normal circumstances -- but if you truly believe in the ideals of the Green Party, I ask you to please vote for Al Gore. We cannot allow ourselves to be divided and conquered.
To everyone: I know this has been exceptionally long, and I apologize. There were, however, too many things I wanted to discuss that simply are not amenable to short sound bites. We are facing a momentous decision next week, a decision that will affect our lives, our nation, and our planet well into the future. We have an opportunity before us to make that future a future of prosperity, of environmental health, and of personal liberty for everyone. Please consider the words I have written here, and please share these with your friends so that they can also consider them. And finally, please join with me in ensuring the best future for our nation by voting for Al Gore on November 7th.