". . . let me ask you about something else. We have a report that NASA, the space agency, is planning to advance the launch date of the final stage of the space station Celeste to right before the presidential election this fall. Would you call that a triumph of American aerospace engineering, or of politics? You can take credit for both, if you'd like."
The president smiled, suppressing his desire to pick up the water pitcher and smash it against the forehead of this supercilious twerp. But inside his brain alarms were sounding like those on a depth-charged submarine. How did Banion know about the launch date? They'd gone to pains to put in so many buffers between the White House and NASA on this exquisitely delicate matter that no one would be able to trace the decision to the Oval Office.
"John," he began, in his slow, overly patient tone of voice that suggested he wasn't sure English was your first language, "the credit for Celeste's dazzling success has to go, first and foremost, to hundreds and thousands of men and women who have worked their hearts out on this project from the very beginning. . . ."
Banion looked over his glasses in the manner of a disappointed schoolteacher and jotted notes on his clipboard. He did this not because any of the drivel exgurgitating like foam from the presidential mouth warranted recording but because it made his interviewees nervous.
". . . to make sure that America will not only be number one here on earth but number one out . . . there."
"Before we return to whether the timing of the launch was politically manipulated," said Banion, "let's talk for a moment about the wisdom of spending so many billions of dollars on a space station. So far all it seems to have accomplished is to provide a platform for studying the effects of weightlessness on copulating fruit flies."
"Three and a half years ago, only days after a disastrous and, if I may, ill-advised military operation in North Korea, you gave a speech at an aerospace plant in the Mojave Desert in California in which you called for completing an orbital space station. You called this 'an urgent national priority.' Some cynical voices at the time suggested that, like President Kennedy, who announced the man-on-the-moon initiative right after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, you were trying to get people's minds off the Korean debacle. But leave that aside for a moment -"
"Let me -"
"If I may? And leave aside the fact that Celeste's biggest contractors are in California and Texas, two states you almost lost four years ago and which you desperately need to win this time. Let me ask you, after four years of cost overruns that would have made the emperor Caligula blush crimson, what does the nation have to show for this celestial boondoggle, aside from three-point-four-million-dollar zero-gravity coffeemakers and one-point-eight-million-dollar toilets?"
"With all due respect, I'm sure there were some people in the court of King Ferdinand and Isabella who objected to the cost of the facilities on Columbus's boats."
"I don't recall that there were facilities on the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María."
"My point is that you can't really put a price on the future."
"With all due respect, whenever a politician says you can't put a price on something, you can be sure it's going to be a whopper. The fact is that you can put a price on anything. In this case, it's twenty-one billion dollars and counting, as they say at Cape Canaveral. This is a huge sum of money. What's more, it's being said that your reelection committee should report this as a campaign donation by the American people."
"Fine," said the president, "but let me tell you what I hear when I travel around this country in support of Celeste. I hear people saying, 'This is excellent. This is something we can all be proud of.' "
Excerpted from Little Green Men by Christopher Buckley. Copyright© 1999 by Christopher Buckley. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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