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By David DeCamp October 10, 2008

Obama sought the money, but it's no mere projector

Note: This item has been updated since it originally was published, with new information that has changed the ruling.

Seeking to paint his Democratic rival as a spendthrift, Sen. John McCain highlighted a request Sen. Barack Obama once made to help a Chicago landmark.

"He voted for nearly a billion dollars in pork-barrel earmark projects, including, by the way, $3-million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois," McCain said during the Oct. 7, 2008, presidential debate. "My friends, do we need to spend that kind of money?"

McCain was referring to a spending request for the 2008 budget. And, indeed, the Web site of Obama’s Senate office shows Obama asked for $3-million for the Adler Planetarium. According to Obama’s office, the equipment had begun to fail and deprived people of a learning experience.

"The projection equipment in this theater is 40 years old, and is no longer supported with parts or service by the manufacturer," his office said in a June 21, 2007, announcement.

McCain refers to the item as an "overhead projector," conjuring images of those little projectors on carts in public school libraries all over America, but calling this piece of equipment an overhead projector is like calling the space shuttle a bottle rocket. The projector at Adler that would be replaced is 2½ tons, 18 feet in diameter and elevates from 12 to 20 feet. It's used to display 7,000 stars and planets that are visible, said Mark Webb, director of theaters at Adler. It has motors and gears.

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"The characterization of it as an overhead projector is not very accurate," said Webb, who has been at the planetarium more than 25 years.

While the museum has not settled on a specific replacement, the $3-million would help cover most of the cost of a new system of projectors. It will be computerized with light sources that would display all the visible stars plus the deep space stars and planets. It would have hard drives and software to transfer megabytes of data, he said. The projector system is part of a $10-million theater upgrade at Adler, the first U.S. location with a planetarium.

As PolitiFact has previously reported , Obama has sought — but not necessarily received — $931.3-million in spending, including the projector system money. More broadly, annual votes for spending bills mean Obama, like other Congress members, has likely supported a lot more earmarks.

But Obama didn’t actually vote for the projector as McCain stated. The request — which was a tenfold hike from a failed request a year earlier — never made it past the Senate appropriations committee, said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense. And Obama isn’t a member of the panel. But Obama did go for the money.

"I think for most voters it’s a fine line to draw," Ellis said.

We originally rated McCain’s statement as Mostly True when we confined our review to the earmark issue. But after several readers alerted us to the true nature of the projector, we decided further reporting and study of the details of the project were required. McCain is right that Obama sought the money (though not a vote), but because McCain mischaracterizes the size of the projector to enhance his argument that money is being wasted, we have changed our ruling. We say Half True.

Our Sources

Transcript, presidential debate, Nashville, Tenn., Oct. 7, 2008

Office of Sen. Barack Obama,  "Obama Announces FY08 Federal Funding Requests," news release, June 21, 2007

Interview with Steve Ellis, vice president, Taxpayers for Common Sense, Oct. 7, 2008

Interview, Mark Webb, director of theaters, Adler Planetarium, Oct. 9, 2008


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Obama sought the money, but it's no mere projector

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