THE BLOG
06/20/2010 06:08 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How to Do It: An Open Letter to President Obama

UPDATED Sunday at 7pm Eastern to show the existing "Visons For Tomorrow" initiative that can potentially be the foundation for the educational effort I propose.

Dear President Obama,

I am writing this letter as someone who (full transparency) actively supported your candidacy with both my time and money. In fact, you and I met at a small fund raising event in NYC in September of 2007, an event at which Ted Sorensen publicly endorsed your candidacy. Reggie Love and I exchanged cards and I wound up serving on one of your advisory committees, based on my background in transportation from once working for the NYCDOT. I treasure the picture of the two of us is from that 2007 event, as well as the fun fact I discovered later on: that your wife and I were both born on January 17th (something she and I also share with Muhammad Ali, by the way).

I was never so proud or hopeful than when I went to Washington for your inauguration. I marvelled at how well behaved the huge crowds were and knew that -- even as you had a huge mess to clean up from the previous administration -- you would approach the challenges ahead with a logical appreciation of what was possible combined with the emotional "fierce urgency of now" spirit that motivated you to run "now" in the first place and, in the eyes of many, accomplish what seemed to be impossible.

In last Tuesday's Oval Office address, I still felt that fierce sense of urgency, as well as your desire to tap into the American spirit by referencing prayer. But while America's faith in God is one of our greatest strengths, so is our innately entrepreneurial way of thinking. Americans aren't just religious (well, most of them); they are creative problem-solvers too.

And I believe it's this lack of creativity in the government's response that is what's making so many people angry. They know that it's in our nature to solve problems in ways that have never been tried before yet which wind up working. And they don't see anything like that happening now. They know that you accomplished "the impossible" by winning the presidency, but they don't see you using that same entrepreneurial spirit.. that same outside the box thinking... now.

Just to be clear, I am not talking about the efforts to stop the leak. And -- while it's critical that it be managed with a greater emphasis on local control and less of a top down structure -- I'm also not talking about the efforts to clean up the oil.

What I'm talking about is using a creative, entrepreneurial solution to the macro problem that is, ultimately, the source of this catastrophe: America's addiction to oil.

Please notice I'm not using 9/11 or Katrina analogies here. That's because it's not appropriate to put what we are going through in the context of an attack from an enemy or a natural disaster.

This catastrophe... this near death experience (which may still turn out to be a "death experience" for thousands of businesses and who-knows-how-many species of fish and other forms of sea life)... has happened because of something we are doing to ourselves. It's been brought about by our national addiction to something that we once thought was fine to use but now know is bad for us.

Just like cigarettes - which were once advertised as being good for your health by doctors but which we now know cause cancer - oil is something which we once thought was okay to use but which we now know is not. Once upon a time, oil was easy to find, cheap to use, and the environment was clean enough that the resulting pollution caused no threat. But over time, oil has become hard and expensive to find, has wound up financing the activities of our enemies, and its continued use risks pushing our environment past the tipping point beyond which it will not be able to sustain life on this planet as we know it.

What to do? Well, face the facts for one. Look ourselves in the mirror - with all the compassion we can muster with the help of God - and declare we have an addiction that is so bad it is killing us.

And second, use a special resource that's available only in America to end that addiction... a resource that played an integral role in both winning World War II and landing a man on the Moon. It's a resource that has been vastly under-reported ovar the years, but which I have researched in my studies of how cultures learn how to do things they've never done before.

That resource is the creation of socially responsible, educational partnerships between Hollywood and the scientific / technical communities. These are resources that existed during both of those critical times in our history.

I doubt that anyone has talked to you about this until now; but if there's one thing I know about you, Mr. President, it's that you are open to hearing (and learning) things you've never known about before. As brilliant as you are, I know that you also know that it's impossible for anyone to know everything. And this subject - the nation-wide educational efforts that involved Hollywood - hasn't been reported on since the AMC cable channel showed a documentary about the WWII effort in 1998 and since a little-known magazine called "Outre" wrote about the effort related to the space program in the early 1990's.

I doubt that any of your advisors has ever talked to you about the First Motion Picture Unit of WWII (what the AMC special called the "Hollywood Commandoes") or about the 1955 partnership between Walt Disney and Wernher von Braun that taught the American people that space travel was no longer the stuff of fantasy. Because if they had, I'm sure you would have announced last Tuesday not just a new group to plan for the restoration of the gulf region but a new national effort to educate the American people about all the things we will need to do in order to end this addiction to oil once and for all.

If you knew how Jack Warner of Warner Bros organized the First Motion Picture Unit at the request of the federal government and that it included the best people Hollywood had to offer, I'm sure you would have announced that Steven Spielberg (or someone of equal stature) was going to do now what Jack Warner did then. As the First Motion Picture Unit taught the American people what they needed to know - including the different ways they needed to live -- in order to win WWII, this new effort would use the power of entertainment to teach the American people how to replace an oil-based economy with one based on renewable, sustainable resources. It would teach them both the new habits they need to learn and the old habits they need to unlearn.

Experts in the sustainability field such as Amory Lovins and William McDonough would be brought in as technical advisors, but so would experts in psychology and sociology. Both technical and sociological experts worked on the WWII effort, as can be seen in this documentary from the beginning of that effort: "Winning Your Wings".

It was produced at a time when thousands of new recruits were needed for the rapidly expanding Army Air Corps. And it starred Jimmy Stewart, who was a pilot himself and was already serving in the war effort. This documentary can be watched in two parts on YouTube. It's a remarkable piece of cultural history, from a time when all Americans knew we had a war to win... but didn't yet know how to win it.

Please watch "Winning Your Wings,", Mr. President. It will take less than 20 minutes to do so. And, while you do, I invite you to imagine Tom Hanks starring in a similar documentary (perhaps called "Winning Your Freedom From Oil").

"Winning Your Wings," produced by the First Motion Picture Unit and starring Jimmy Stewart.

If the content in "Winning Your Wings" doesn't seem technical enough, I invite you to watch Leonard Maltin's introduction to the special DVD of the Disney-von Braun partnership, which The Walt Disney Company issued in 2004 under it's Disney Treasures label. Much of this programming -- produced in 1955 -- can also be found on YouTube...

Leonard Maltin introduces "Man Into Space", produced by Walt Disney with technical advice provided by Wernher von Braun and his fellow rocket scientists.

Mr. President, the American people have a lot to learn if they are going to give up their addiction to oil... including what sustainable technology experts like Amory Lovins and William McDonough know: that the alternative to that addiction is a very positive new world. It's a world in which we will live in harmony with nature while still having the modern conveniences we are used to having. And it's a new world that fits perfectly with the American entrepreneurial spirit of doing things in new and improved ways.

But the American people cannot learn this new way of living from Oval Office addresses. They also cannot learn it from people like Steven Chu and Carol Browner. The shift from oil to renewable energy is not just a scientific one. It is a cultural one. It requires a cultural shift, just as winning WWII and going to the Moon required. And such a shift -- while initially the product of political leadership - can best be realized through a sustained effort that is both educational and fun. The entertainment community, Mr. President, is the key to ending America's addiction to oil. And its participation is the missing ingredient in all your plans to date.

I urge you to reach out to Hollywood and find a leader such as Steven Spielberg who will organize a First Motion Picture Unit-type of effort for today's "war for independence from oil". And I encourage you to ask that leader to have Tom Hanks star in the first educational effort to come out of this new initiative. Based on the acceptance speech Tom made when he and his team won their Emmy for the mini-series "From the Earth to the Moon," I'm positive he's the right man for the job. Here's a link to a 30 second clip from Tom's acceptance speech so you can see what I mean...

Tom Hanks on how great America could be if we all worked together as people did during the Apollo Project.

Of course, I'm sure that Leonard Nimoy would be happy to contribute to this as well. And William Shatner and the other actors from the Star Trek universe too. After all, they specialize in helping people "go where they've never gone before"!

Finally (and this is an addition to my original letter), there is an existing initiative out of NBC/Universal that I want to bring to your attention. It is called "Visions For Tomorrow" and has its home in the Syfy channel, because it was launched in recognition of the power that science fiction has to explore and inspire us with future, hopeful scenarios. While it has received precious little attention from the mainstream press, "Visions For Tomorrow" has an advisory board of highly respected leaders in the science and technology fields plus one very well-connected Washington insider: John Podesta, of the Center for American Progress.

It also has the support of business futurist Peter Schwartz, who wrote an essay for the initiative entitled "Do we no longer believe in a better tomorrow?" in 2008. In it, he challenges the media to present the public with a positive vision of the future... one built on the fact of what we now know how to do. I urge you to read his essay. And please watch this promotion video for the initiative. I believe you will see that we already have the beginnings of what America needs: a broad-based appeal to our better nature to transform how America generates and uses energy, which could be expanded to additionally motivate and teach the American people how to do this across the land.

Promotional video for NBC/Universal's "Visions For Tomorrow"

Thanks for taking the time to read this letter, Mr. President. I'll close with these final thoughts. My mom (who actually was in show business) was life-long friends with Danny Kaye, who was the first ever UNICEF Ambassador to the World's Children. In that capacity, Danny convinced the people at Paramount to make a film showing UNICEF's work in Africa. This film -- "Assignment Children", which Danny hosted -- contributed enormously to expanding the public's awareness of the important work UNICEF was doing. In honor of both my mother and Danny's memories, I would gladly help you organize this new entertainment -- educational partnership.