A lot has been said and written about the earmark Barack Obama sought for a new $3 million overhead projector at the Adler Planetarium since John McCain raised it in Tuesday night’s debate.
And a lot of it is pure bunk. Let’s take a look.
1. What McCain said:
While we were working to eliminate these pork barrel earmarks, he voted for nearly $1 billion in pork barrel earmark projects including $3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago. My friends, do we need to spend that kind of money?
Obama Announces FY08 Federal Funding Requests, Thursday, June 21, 2007.
Adler Planetarium, to support replacement of its projector and related equipment, $3,000,000
One of its most popular attractions and teaching tools at the Adler Planetarium is the Sky Theater. The projection equipment in this theater is 40 years old, and is no longer supported with parts or service by the manufacturer. It has begun to fail, leaving the theater dark and groups of school students and other interested museum-goers without this very valuable and exciting learning experience.
3. Obama’s response at the debate:
Senator McCain has been talking tough about earmarks, and that’s good, but earmarks account for about $18 billion of our budget.
COMMENT: Note he was careful not to say only $18 billion.
4. Adler Planetarium’s response:
To clarify, the Adler Planetarium requested federal support – which was not funded – to replace the projector in its historic Sky Theater, the first planetarium theater in the Western Hemisphere. The Adler’s Zeiss Mark VI projector – not an overhead projector – is the instrument that re-creates the night sky in a dome theater, the quintessential planetarium experience. The Adler’s projector is nearly 40 years old and is no longer supported with parts or service by the manufacturer. It is only the second planetarium projector in the Adler’s 78 years of operation.
Science literacy is an urgent issue in the United States. To remain competitive and ensure
national security, it is vital that we educate and inspire the next generation of explorers to
pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
Senator McCain’s statements about the Adler Planetarium’s request for federal support do
not accurately reflect the museum’s legislative history or relationship with Senator Obama.
The Adler has approached the Illinois Congressional delegation the last few years for federal assistance with various initiatives. These have included museum exhibitions, equipment and educational programs we offer to area schools, including the Chicago Public Schools.
We have made requests to Senators Durbin and Obama, as well as to 6 area Congressmen
from both political parties. We are grateful that all of the Members we have approached,
including Senator Obama, have deemed our activities worthy of their support, and have
made appropriations requests on our behalf, as they have for many worthy Illinois nonprofit
As a result of the hard work of our bipartisan congressional delegation, the Adler has been
fortunate to receive a few federal appropriations the past couple of years.
However, the Adler has never received an earmark as a result of Senator Obama’s efforts.
This is clearly evidenced by recent transparency laws implemented by the Congress, which
have resulted in the names of all requesting Members being listed next to every earmark in
the reports that accompany appropriations bills.
5. Media Meme: It’s not an “overhead projector.” Therefore, McCain’s argument is invalidated.
McCain repeatedly called the requested equipment an “overhead projector” which brings to mind the simple light projector your junior-high geometry teacher used to display transparencies. But the Zeiss planetarium projector Adler has its eye on is no simple teaching aid.
COMMENT: Did anyone seriously believe that Obama was seeking $3 million for the kind of overhead projector many folks experienced in junior high school? McCain may have diminished the complexity of the instrument the planetarium sought, but how would you have described it in shorthand during a debate? The planetarium calls it a projector, and we all knew in general what he meant. What we didn’t know was how much such a thing would cost, but that’s besides the point. The point is: Should American taxpayers be funding this?
Sky Machine Not Overhead Projector
COMMENT: If McCain called it a “Sky Machine” he’d be featured on Saturday Night Live this weekend as the Unfrozen Caveman Senior Citizen who is frightened and confused by the modern world.
6. The earmark was denied, so McCain’s argument is invalidated.
Besides, as space politics blogger Jeff Foust points out, the point is moot as far as the planetarium is concerned because the spending wasn’t passed.
COMMENT: I don’t know how hard it is to have an earmark rejected – especially one that is the relatively paltry earmark amount of $3 million – but my sense is that your request has to be pretty ridiculous to not make it into the federal budget. But that’s beside the point; the point is that Obama sought the earmark, not that the rest of Congress found it to be unworthy.
7. Because John McCain doesn’t believe that, as his spokesman says, “taxpayers in Ohio should be forced to pay for projectors in Illinois without appropriate scrutiny,” he must hate science in general and planetariums in particular.
* Discover magazine: “McCain’s Planetariophobia”
* Nature.com: “McCain: Planetariums Suck”
* The Huffington Post: “Why Does John McCain Hate Planetariums”
* Chicagoist: “McCain Drinks the Adler Haterade”
Similarly, those who opposed the Bridge to Nowhere must hate bridges.
8. New meme: Despite the fact that Obama stopped making earmark requests when he embarked on his presidential campaign and has spoken out against them, they really are a good thing.
Example from Michael Tomasky’s “Yay For Earmarks“:
[E]armarks do a lot of good. A small town gets a new senior-citizens center. A poor, rural area gets a swimming pool. Earmarks are the only way for these things to happen.
COMMENT: Nobody is against projects deserving of federal funds actually getting those funds. But earmarks exist outside of the normal budgeting process so priorities and worthiness are never weighed, while clout and sneaky manuevers rule the day.
9. But the planetarium sought help from the entire Illinois delegation, not just Obama.
[Adler president Paul] Knappenberger said the planetarium started asking local congressmen for federal help in 2005, before Obama declared his candidacy for president.
How is this relevant? Obama still tried to secure the earmark that had failed previously.
10. And then there is the largely unseen local political dimension.
Frank M. Clark, chairman and chief executive of ComEd, a Chicago-based utility owned by Exelon Corp., was chairman of the Adler Planetarium until May 2008, a ComEd spokesman said. Clark never pledged to raise a specific amount for Obama, but he did hold a fund-raiser shortly after the senator announced he would run for president, the spokesman said. Clark, who remains on the planetarium‘s board is “strongly committed to expanding educational resources available to Chicago’s children and families,” he said.
UPDATE: The Obama campaign Web site lists Frank M. Clark as having raised between $200,000 and $500,000 for the candidate
COMMENT: Who is Frank Clark? Frank Clark is not only an overpaid, anti-consumer Obama patron, but is so close to outgoing state senate president Emil Jones that Tribune columnist John Kass often refers to Jones as (D-ComEd). Emil Jones is Obama’s self-described “political mentor” (by contrast, Tony Rezko is his self-described “political godfather”). All you need to know about Emil Jones is that he just turned his seat over to his son in the time-honored way of Chicago hacks who find all kinds of clever ways to avoid real elections. You have learned well, Obama-wan.
11. Why haven’t we heard more about Obama’s earmark requests? Maybe because he kept his 2005 and 2006 requests secret for so long, finally relenting after months of prodding just a couple days before he relented to pressure about unanswered Rezko questions and met with the city’s editorial boards, pushing the earmarks out of the news.
12. What have we missed? Well, for a man who professes to have such a great moral compass, he still found it in him to request $1 million for his wife’s employer, the University of Chicago Hospitals. He distracted the media away from questions by instead issuing a challenge that Hillary Clinton release her earmarks, those controlling the story by advancing it past his own record.
13. But isn’t Adler Planetarium the sort of civic endeavor we should support? Sure, but should federal taxpayers support it? How would Chicagoans feel if our wallets were tapped for a planetarium in Idaho? Besides, the Adler sucks.
From the Tribune, June 7, 2007:
My personal dumbness aside, the show does suffer from a few technical liabilities. I mean, how – in this age of high-tech, special effects-laden presentations at museums – is a live lecture using a Mark IV Zeiss projector from the 1970s not going to feel a little retro?
But doesn’t that just show that they night a new pro – er, Sky Machine? Yes. But again, who should pay for it? The planetarium’s failure to raise enough money privately might just be the market telling them something.
14. Okay. So has anyone gotten it right? Yes. Kristen McQueary, who was one of the few to notice (disclaimer: I am quoted in the story) that the city’s editorial boards totally wimped out on their Rezko sessions, nailed it.
U.S. Sen. Barack Obama should be a little embarrassed. He knows $3 million to renovate an exhibit at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium ought to fall near the caboose of federal grant requests.
The lash from U.S. Sen. John McCain during Tuesday’s night’s debate? Warranted.
McCain wants to eliminate earmarks, and Obama should be agreeing with him.
McQueary also notes:
Just two years ago, Obama received high praise for his work on a transportation conference committee that yielded more pork for Illinois than just about any other state. In addition to several mega projects, GOP stronghold DuPage County – home to many self-described fiscal conservatives – got $1.2 million for a pedestrian bridge and $900,000 for walking trails.
From whom did Obama receive such hero worship for his work on the bill? U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, the grand old Republican himself.
And she also blames you:
Don’t flay your representatives in Congress for failing to “bring home the bacon” and then complain about too much spending in Washington.
Don’t wail about “bridges to nowhere” but look the other way when your elected official cuts the ribbon on a sparkly new fitness center in your community, partially funded with tax dollars.
You can’t have it both ways.
End of story.