SS United States: When Washington Got Things Done

By Susan Gibbs
Thursday, October 17, 2013
Susan Gibbs With Dedication Plaque

Susan Gibbs is the Executive Director of the SS United States Conservancy and granddaughter of William Francis Gibbs, designer of America’s Flagship. Here Ms. Gibbs shares her opinions on the intersection of U.S. politics and America’s historical flagship, SS United States, while addressing the American condition, past and future.

With the government shutdown having sent Washington into a tailspin, validating Americans’ disdain for beltway politics, you can’t help but think about a time in our history when people believed government actually worked. It may be difficult to harken [sic] back to those days, but there was a time when Washington actually got things done. Our national government set goals, established bold visions of the future and the nation lurched forward making great leaps.

The historical record is filled with examples of when U.S. government funding and vision made global progress a reality. Railing against government spending and investment in research and new technologies simply cuts against a long record of Washington actually leading the way for the world to see in a variety of areas.

It went far beyond the now seemingly extinct collegiality between Senators or the Reagan-Tip O’Neal relationship. When Washington faced a crisis, it leveraged the apparatus of government putting partisanship aside, to solve a problem.

The microchip, computer, internet, modern highway systems, aerospace technology, rocket technology, the modern electrical grid, and plastics, right down to the disposable razor were all innovations spurred on by the federal government. True, many of these, including Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System were in fact borne out of some military purpose. That, however, does not negate the fact that bold ideas and real needs could galvanize Washington toward action.

In the days after World War II when the Cold War was in its infancy, Washington also helped give rise to the concept of the Public Private Partnership. Back then before the jet age, America needed the fastest, most advanced ship ever constructed to move more troops farther and faster than any nation. After contentious debate, our leadership in Washington responded by partnering with the United States Lines to design, build and launch America’s Flagship, the SS United States. Like the 747, the Space Shuttle and the iPhone that followed, the United States became a symbol of American innovation and resolve.

She was the epitome of her namesake nation on the high seas. On her maiden voyage she shattered speed records across the Atlantic. Those records are still unbroken.

When President Kennedy challenged us to go to the moon before the 1960s came to a close, Americans and their government rallied to the cause. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t doubt and dissention. Debate is part of our system. But we drove hard to achieve an historic goal for our nation and humanity that has not been duplicated.

It’s hard to imagine such lofty accomplishments emerging from today’s Washington. Today, with the Space Shuttle fleet a series of museum exhibits, we wonder if our quest for bold innovation has permanently taken a back seat to special interest politics and partisan gridlock.

The Obamacare and debt ceiling debates is a sideshow to the larger problem of government dysfunction that is impacting Americans’ faith and confidence in the system. Some blame Republicans, some the Democrats, still others the Tea Party or Liberal ideologues. The simple truth is people don’t live on the set of a Sunday talk show. They live in communities all across the country and they want to be proud again in a nation that can set its sights on building great things, doing what was previously thought impossible and being the nation of bold action it once was.

People are waiting for a new sign of American greatness. Perhaps they should look to the fate of an old one as a barometer of whether Washington is ready to get things done again.

Still the object named for our great nation, America’s flagship the SS United States, sits waiting for renewal at a Philadelphia pier. This great American symbol has been abandoned by the government whose vision and foresight made her an icon of her age.

The ship could be a half a million square feet of mixed-use waterfront development wrapped in an historic structure that is the last of its kind. It could create thousands of jobs and produce needed tax revenue. It could house a world class museum and educational center that celebrates America’s history as well as our enduring quest for technological innovation. It could be a place visited and enjoyed by countless Americans who want to experience a part of their past while enjoying modern amenities.

That’s a bold vision and one worth achieving. Of course, no one in Congress or at the White House seems interested. They’re too busy slinging insults at one another to care about the United States or other important causes.

It’s time we showed the world that our government can get things done again. If it doesn’t, we risk being little more than a shadow of our former selves. Opportunities will pass us by as a nation. We will lose touch with our history and spirit of innovation. We risk being like our great, rusting flagship - a reminder of a time long gone.

ssusc.org

 

  • The SS United States seen from the upper windows of the South Philadelphia IKEA. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)

    The SS United States seen from the upper windows of the South Philadelphia IKEA. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)

  • The SS United States seen from the upper windows of the South Philadelphia IKEA. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)

    The SS United States seen from the upper windows of the South Philadelphia IKEA. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)

  • The SS United States' builder's plate. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)

    The SS United States' builder's plate. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)

  • SS United States seen from S. Christopher Columbus Blvd., Philadelphia. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)

    SS United States seen from S. Christopher Columbus Blvd., Philadelphia. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)

  • The funnels, bridge, and radar mast of the SS United States lit for the Conservancy's

    The funnels, bridge, and radar mast of the SS United States lit for the Conservancy's "National Flagship Celebration", July 1, 2010. The light installation was done by artist Robert Wogan. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)

  • The SS United States at sunset, during the SS United States Conservancy's

    The SS United States at sunset, during the SS United States Conservancy's "National Flagship Celebration", July 1, 2010. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)

  • The SS United States' knifelike prow. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)

    The SS United States' knifelike prow. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)

  • The SS United States' forward funnel and radar mast. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)

    The SS United States' forward funnel and radar mast. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)

  • The SS United States' mighty funnels as seen from her after decks. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)

    The SS United States' mighty funnels as seen from her after decks. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)

  • The SS United States seen across from her Philadelphia pier. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)

    The SS United States seen across from her Philadelphia pier. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)

  • The SS United States seen from the upper windows of the South Philadelphia IKEA. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)
  • The SS United States seen from the upper windows of the South Philadelphia IKEA. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)
  • The SS United States' builder's plate. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)
  • SS United States seen from S. Christopher Columbus Blvd., Philadelphia. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)
  • The funnels, bridge, and radar mast of the SS United States lit for the Conservancy's
  • The SS United States at sunset, during the SS United States Conservancy's
  • The SS United States' knifelike prow. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)
  • The SS United States' forward funnel and radar mast. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)
  • The SS United States' mighty funnels as seen from her after decks. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)
  • The SS United States seen across from her Philadelphia pier. (Credit: SS United States Conservancy)
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