IT'S TRADITIONAL for Washington, DC power brokers and wannabees to keep a "face wall"--a collection of signed photographs or letters from the politicians they've met or worked for over the years. The typical face wall extensively features the beaming face of the curator, documenting his or her progress from intern to congressional aide to cabinet member or whatnot, shaking hands with the nation's political elite.

I started my own collection two decades ago as a young soldier in the Reagan revolution. Over time it grew to include photos of myself and Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Arnold Schwarzenegger--you get the picture. A typical GOP staffer's shrine.

But my collection has an unusual centerpiece: a signed letter from Walter Mondale, the former vice president who unsuccessfully challenged Ronald Reagan for the presidency in 1984.

The letter is dated February 14, 1972, and is addressed by Mondale, at the time a U.S. Senator from Minnesota, to a man who lived not far from the Capitol, in the posh suburb of Chevy Chase, Maryland. I found the letter on the bargain table at a political memorabilia show shortly after the '84 election, which Mondale lost overwhelmingly. I bought it for almost nothing--there's a weak market for autographs from the also-rans--but it caught my eye because of the opening paragraph:

"Thank you very much for your message supporting my position against the space shuttle. I hope that our efforts to reject this project here in the Senate will be successful."

Opposed to the space shuttle? How strange.

Mondale went on:

"President Nixon's decision to proceed with the development of the space shuttle is another example of perverse priorities and colossal waste in government spending. There is expert evidence that we can achieve the same scientific and utilitarian goals in space at only a fraction of the billions to be spent on the shuttle. And there are certainly more sensible ways to create new jobs than by an enormous federal boondoggle."

Of course Mondale's "boondoggle" turned out to be the nation's pride, undiminished by the losses of the Challenger and the Columbia.

Mondale's letter serves as a reminder that big ideas matter in American politics. Space exploration is a big idea. John F. Kennedy understood this, as did Ronald Reagan. And so too, does George W. Bush.

Mondale circa-1972 sounds a bit like the current field of Democratic candidates for the 2004 presidential nomination. Howard Dean said the Bush plan is "not worth bankrupting the country." While professing to be "very much in favor" of the U.S. space program generally, Dean asked: "Where is the tax increase to pay for it?" Richard Gephardt said that NASA ought to lower its sights, stick with the space station, and turn its full attention to domestic jobs programs.

Dennis Kucinich mocked the president's space agenda, joking that Bush wants us to return to the moon to find Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

But the joke may be on the Democrats. When an American walks on Mars for the first time, some political historian will unearth these statements from the 2004 campaign trail and enjoy a good, hearty laugh.

Joseph Rodota was a senior campaign policy advisor to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Deputy Chief of Staff to former Governor Pete Wilson.

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