In Need of Eloquence

Reagan
Jan. 28, 1986 file picture, U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office of the White House after a televised address to the nation about the space shuttle Challenger explosion. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)

 

On Jan. 28, 1986, Ronald Reagan, President of the United States, approached the White House podium that is used for televised addresses. The nation that he was about to speak to was in shock that day. Many Americans craved some sort of thoughtful comment; Reagan began:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’d planned to speak to you tonight to report on the state of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day for mourning and remembering.”

“Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.”

There were seven members to the crew, all were mourned, but the name that reverberated around the world was Christa McAuliffe. It had been a goal of the Reagan administration to send a teacher to space. There had been nationwide competition to be selected. McAuliffe, a high school social studies teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, was the winner. Earlier that day news coverage showed her among her fellow travelers, dressed in their flight suits, waving to applauding workers as they were escorted toward the rocket that would carry the shuttle for their journey into space.

Reagan continued:

“For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, ‘Give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy.’ They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.”

Peggy Noonan, a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist who was serving as a special assistant and speechwriter for Reagan, wrote the address. Having only a few hours to pull it together she had the gift of capturing the soul of the person who was speaking, Reagan continued:

“And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.”

As is appropriate of someone who is talking to students, the President offered a bit of history:

On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard a ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime, the great frontiers were the ocean. A historian later said, ‘He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.’ Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.”

I mention Reagan’s speech not as an endorsement for a party, ideology or candidates. Others can argue the merits, or the lack thereof, of the last decade or so of presidents. There is one category in particular, overwhelmed by social tensions and underscored most lately by the Afghanistan debacle, where the most recent presidents have failed the American people – eloquence. As is true in the home, school, job or a nation; sometimes there needs to be a paternal figure to just hug us collectively and share our hurt – to at least warn us that, as Franklin Roosevelt did to the American people, “there is nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Reagan’s speech that October evening may be the finest presidential speech in modern history. If there was any doubt of that, certainly the case was made with the closing lines:

“The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

Amen.

 

 

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Categories: The Editor’s Room