One Mall Step

Dick Nixon and the marketing of the moon landing

Clad like a moon-bound huggy Bear in a blue jump suit and white moon boots, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin took a few steps in wet cement at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace last week. Aldrin was commemorating the 30th anniversary of man's first step on the moon, the momentous event that produced such national windfalls as rocks and O.J. Simpson's film career.

Like that first walk 30 years ago, the event was more easily seen through a camera than in person; still and motion cameras surrounded Aldrin, making it hard for patrons who had paid 6 bucks to see the man walk.

Unlike the event 30 years ago, Aldrin was the main attraction. Aldrin markets himself as "The Moonwalker" and does such a good job that it's possible some might forget—or that young ones may never realize—that Aldrin was actually the second man on the moon, following the lead of, that guy, Jack Armstrong . . . Lance Armstrong . . . you know, that guy. The Nixon Library played along; its flier announcing the event said that museum patrons would be able to "'walk the walk' that established America's leadership in space."

Aldrin's walk, designed to open an exhibit called "Area 37: Richard Nixon and the History of America in Space," was itself pretty misleading. Like Vietnam, the space program was something Nixon inherited from Democratic presidents and, like the war, became something he dragged out to the growing indifference of the American public; most of this is remembered now pretty much through movies, most of which star Tom Hanks. Nixon's stewardship of the space program mainly produced the first lunar golf shot and the first SUV, but as far as initially getting to the moon, here's a quick impression:

You know who's responsible for sideburns, don't you? The Jews. What's that, H.R.? We landed on the moon? Woo-hoo!

As for Aldrin, he's done an excellent job of keeping his legacy alive, renting himself out to companies and events, just as athletes and celebrities of all strata do. Like many athletes, Aldrin is blessed with having accomplished something of great note at a relatively young age but is saddled with never being able to surpass it. So he embraced it with great relish and seriousness.

That became clear the first time I met Aldrin. It was at a virtual-reality exposition in the early '90s. He had been hired by one of the companies to walk around and shake hands and, generally, be Buzz Aldrin while talking up the company's new virtual-reality game. The game was supposed to give players, who wore a giant headset, the sensation of flying to the moon. (And if wanting to virtually puke from motion sickness was the yardstick of authenticity, mission accomplished.)

Aldrin was guided my way, and we spent several uncomfortable moments smiling at each other with nothing to say. Finally, in an effort to lighten the mood, I said, "This game will be great for any of those people who haven't already been to the moon."

Aldrin fixed me with a grave expression and said, "You know, very few people have been to the moon."

 
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