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Ronald Reagan Centennial

The Challenger Disaster and President Reagan's Gift to a Grieving Nation

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On Jan. 28, 1986, Ronald Reagan was scheduled to give his State of the Union address. In a meeting with a bi-partisan delegation of congressional leaders, he and House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. tangled over the issue of unemployment.

After they left, Reagan prepared to have the traditional State of the Union lunch with the network anchors while receiving a last-minute briefing from acting press secretary Larry Speakes when several members of the White House staff rushed in with news that the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded after takeoff.

The State of the Union speech was postponed, and in what he would later describe as "one of the hardest days I ever spent in the Oval Office," his speechwriting staff began drafting a very different kind of address. It was delivered at 5 p.m., and although only 648 words in length, it is still remembered as perhaps the most inspiring of his presidency.

"The future doesn't belong to the faint-hearted, it belongs to the brave," Reagan said that evening. "The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them." He ended his homily by borrowing a passage from a World War II era sonnet: "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."

On that day, Ronald Reagan at once connected with presidents of the past while setting the standard for what would be expected of future presidents: Give voice to Americans' shared grief at a moment of national tragedy, while showing the way forward out of that grief -- and, thus, giving some meaning to the calamity.

Tip O'Neill
, who had been angered in the Oval Office by what he saw as Reagan's cavalier attitude toward those without jobs, later wrote that he had seen the worst of Reagan, and the best, in the same day. "It was a trying day for all Americans," O'Neill wrote in his autobiography, "and Ronald Reagan spoke to our highest ideals."

This is not an entirely new task: It is what Lincoln did at Gettysburg, and why Franklin Roosevelt personally led the nation in prayer on D-Day. But television has gradually changed our expectations, and it was a movie actor-turned "citizen politician" who demonstrated how effectively a chief executive can use the camera to unite a grieving nation.

The presence aboard the Challenger of New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe had drawn many schoolchildren to the broadcast of the space shuttle's liftoff, which Reagan alluded to in his speech. "With television now making us part of such events, we need someone to express our grief and feelings of tragedy," says Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University professor and expert on presidential communications. "The president is that person. President Reagan did that for us and he is forever remembered for it."

Others have followed suit, and the resulting speeches, simultaneously somber and soaring, are remembered by the litany of place names and proper nouns that form a mosaic of tragedy – and national resolve: Oklahoma City, Columbine, Ground Zero, National Cathedral, the Space Shuttle Columbia, Virginia Tech, Tucson.

"A president is the only national leader, the only singular, transcendent leader we have," notes Jeff Shesol, a speechwriter during Bill Clinton's presidency. "There's no Church of England here, and at moments like these he's not the leader of a political party, not the leader of an ideological movement. He's the president of all the people. And we want him to speak to our collective sense of loss."

Despite the Lincoln and FDR examples, it wasn't necessarily always this way. On Jan. 27, 1967, almost 19 years to the day before the Challenger broke up after takeoff, a fire broke out in the capsule of Apollo 1 and all three astronauts on board, Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger Chaffee, were killed.

In the White House that night, Lyndon Johnson was thinking of space exploration. In fact, LBJ was celebrating what he considered one of his greatest achievements of his presidency – the successful negotiation of a treaty with the Soviet Union and Great Britain barring nuclear weapons from outer space. Signing ceremonies were held in Moscow, London, and Washington. Earlier that evening, at the East Room ceremony, Johnson had said, "This is an inspiring moment in the history of the human race. We are taking the first firm step toward keeping outer space free forever from the implements of war . . .This treaty means that the moon and our sister planets will serve only the purposes of peace and not of war (and) that astronaut and cosmonaut will meet someday on the surface of the moon as brothers and not as warriors for competing nationalities or ideologies."

A little more than two hours later, while in the family quarters of the White House listening to a toast from the Commerce secretary, LBJ was handed a note: "The first Apollo crew was under test at Cape Kennedy and a fire broke out in the capsule and all three were killed . . . Grissom, White, and Chaffee."

Although stricken -- "The shock," LBJ would say years later, "hit me like a physical blow" – the only statement from the White House was a 24-word press release. Johnson did not speak to the nation, either on television or at Arlington National Cemetery, even though he attended Grissom's and Chaffee's funeral there and sat beside their widows.

Perhaps the exigencies of the Cold War made a presidential speech problematic. Or maybe Lyndon Johnson simply didn't know what to say. Two years later, while the Apollo mission to the moon was taking place, White House speechwriter William Safire wrote a precautionary speech for Richard Nixon. Fortunately, it never had to be delivered.

To a U.S. president, the loss of astronauts is a personal loss, felt in a way that probably only other presidents can understand. In Ronald Reagan's case, he had taken a special interest in the crew of the Challenger, calling them periodically, and personally making the announcement that the first civilian in space would be a schoolteacher. Since Thomas Jefferson's time, there has been a bond between the president and explorers sent out to unchartered territory, a connection only heightened by the inherent dangers of space travel. John F. Kennedy, who committed his nation to exploring the heavens, warned that there would be days like Jan. 27, 1967 -- and Jan. 28, 1986.

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard," Kennedy said in his famous 1962 speech at Rice University. "Therefore, as we set sail, we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked."

And on Feb. 1, 2003, in the midst of a presidency already rocked by a deadly attack on this nation, the peril that JFK warned about became apparent again. "The Columbia is lost," a grim-faced George W. Bush told the nation. "There are no survivors."

Bush had already rallied and consoled this nation in the aftermath of 9/11: His stirring speech at National Cathedral the Friday after the attacks may have been the high-water rhetorical mark of his presidency. Now he had to do it again, with the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia, and its entire crew. Bush ended his address that day with an Old Testament passage, from the Book of Isaiah, in which the prophet assures us that the Lord knows all the stars in the heavens and calls them by name. "The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today," he said. "The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth, yet we can pray that all are safely home."

Michael Gerson, chief speechwriter in Bush's administration, is still grateful to longtime Bush adviser Karen Hughes for finding that biblical passage. A committed Christian, Gerson recalled that when Bush spoke at National Cathedral, family members of those missing at the Pentagon or the World Trade Center were still carrying around photographs of their loved ones, in hopes that they were still alive.

"The media now broadcast tragedy immediately and universally, and the president has taken the role of providing comfort and spiritual context, even when the wounds are very fresh," Gerson said Thursday. "The Columbia speech had a nice ending – that they are all safely home – and it demonstrated to me, again, the unavoidability of religious hope in times of tragedy."

Such events – providing the president strikes the right chords -- also can benefit a president. Until 9/11, George Bush was a divisive figure, mostly because of the contentious way his election had transpired. Michael Waldman, Bill Clinton's chief speechwriter, wrote in his memoir, "POTUS Speaks," that Clinton's surefooted rhetorical response to the Oklahoma City bombing "was the nation's first exposure to Clinton as mourner in chief, a role at which Ronald Reagan had excelled."

"In fact," Waldman added, "it was the first time Clinton had been a reassuring figure rather than an unsettling one. For many people, during those days, for the very first time, he truly became a president."

And so, the mourner in chief role is a two-way street. It is also of unimaginable benefit to a third constituency: Those who are grieving a personal loss. Jeff Shesol, who joined the Clinton speechwriting team long after the Oklahoma City crisis, was with the president when he went to Colorado in 1999 to comfort the parents of the students massacred at Columbine High School. "It's fascinating how much it mattered to them to be met in this way by – to be embraced -- by the president of the United States and to be told, in essence, that the nation recognized their loss," Shesol said.

"These are not people wanting to meet a president and have their picture taken," Shesol added. "These are families experiencing a horrific grief, gathered together in this instance in a gymnasium to hear a president express the nation's collective grief and to begin the process of transcending it. It's an important part of the presidency."

This is what Barack Obama was doing two weeks ago in Tucson, Ariz. There, he too, began the process of transcending the tragedy, this time by invoking the senseless death of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, there in the line of fire because of her faith in American government. Obama's take-away was not a meditation on violence, guns, mental illness, or uncivil discourse – it was about how we could give meaning to her death by living up to her faith in American self-government.

Similarly, when George W. Bush eulogized the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia, at a Feb. 4, 2003 memorial service three days after the disaster, he recalled something that Columbia crew member David Brown told his brother before the ill-fated mission: That if disaster struck the crew, the space program would still live on. "Captain Brown was correct," Bush said. "America's space program will go on."

Ronald Reagan traveled the same path in 1986, flying on Air Force One from Andrews Air Force Base to Houston for a memorial service at the Johnson Space Center. The president and first lady Nancy Reagan sat between two new widows, the wives of Challenger commander Francis Scobee and crew member Michael Smith. "I found it difficult to say anything," Reagan recalled in his autobiography. "All we could do was hug the families and try to hold back tears."

But Reagan was mistaken. It was not all he could do. When it was his time to speak, the president arose, walked to the lectern and eulogized each of the seven members of the crew by name. "America itself was built by men and women such as our seven star voyagers," he said.

"Sometimes when we reach for the stars, we fall short," Reagan added. "But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain. Our nation is indeed fortunate that we can still draw on immense reservoirs of courage, character, and fortitude; that we're still blessed with heroes like those of the space shuttle Challenger."

Full Reagan Centennial Coverage

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