Ronald Reagan was our president and was preparing to give the State of the Union address that evening. The President of the United States of America is called upon to do many things as the leader of the greatness nation in the world. One of the many tasks the president has is to speak with confidence and with compassion to and for the families of those whose lives were lost, but also to the network of engineers and technical people at NASA in the midst of a tragic event.
I am in the process of reading a new book written by Peggy Noonan, The Time of Our Lives, published by Hachette Book Group in New York, NY. In her amazing book, Peggy Noonan gives a detailed account of what happened that day, and the role of Speech Writers have in helping the president in his preparation to speak at critical moments like these.
Every speech the president gives is cleared through a number of people. For Speech Writers it is a tough process they have to experience all the time. Everyone in the process is committed to the president and they want him to put his best foot forward.
Ronald Reagan was a masterful speaker. His speech writers knew "what Ronald Reagan thought. They knew his views, his approach, and knew how he talked, his philosophy. They knew him,"
Peggy Noonan wrote: "Reagan was vivid, he was clear, he had a philosophy well known to us."
In writing for Ronald Reagan you begin with the facts. "Something terrible has happened. We all witnessed it. This is what we know thus far."
The president was busy talking with NASA, to the anchors, and was meeting with aides, he was handling a crisis, and trying to figure out what to do with the State of the Union address that night from the Oval Office.
Peggy Noon was blessed to have Karna Small drop by her office. She was an aide to the Security Council and had been present in the president's office and took notes on everything he had said. She gave those notes to Peggy. As Peggy wrote, "Those notes of what Reagan said to the anchors became the spine of the speech."
President Reagan "talked about the sacrifice of the families of the astronauts. He spoke of how this was a national tragedy with everyone in America saddened. He spoke of the last frontier. We've grown so used to dazzling success in space that this tragedy comes as a special shock. It was for him traumatic. And one of the anchors asked him about the schoolchildren watching. He said, 'Pioneers have always given their lives on the frontier . . . but we have to make it clear to the children that life goes on, it continues.' He said he couldn't put the teacher out of his mind, and her husband, and her children."
Peggy Noonan said the president was not going to horn in on the grief of the families and nation, or dominate the moment, or make it about him.
President Ronald Reagan said this to the schoolchildren:
"And I want to say something to the children of America, who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's takeoff. I know it's 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 our 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."
Then, President Reagan spoke to the nation and the world, which was a statement of resolution: "We'll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here---out hopes and our journeys continue.
And now for the end of the speech:
Peggy Noonan as she watched the news over and over again remembered a poem she had memorized in the seventh grade at McKenna Junior High in Massapequa, Long Island. It was a poem entitled, "High Flight," by John Gillespie Magee, Jr. He was a pilot in the Canadian Air Force in 1939. In his poem on the joy of flying--an unusual joy back then, for not many flew back then. In his poem, Peggy Noonan wrote, "he spoke of breaking 'the surly bonds of earth,' going upward so high he felt almost he could touch the face of God."
Noonan said, "there was something transcending about the poem, not transcendent but transcending. It was a real attempt to define a particular kind of joy and make you know it."
That's the way Noonan ended the speech for the president.
Noonan wrote: "Here's what I knew. Reagan was going to get the speech and change what he wanted, but if he said those words from the Magee poem, if I heard them on TV, it was going to be because Reagan knew that poem and it mattered to him. He wasn't going to say the words unless he knew the poem, And I had a feeling he did, but only a feeling."
"Reagan gives the speech, gets to the end, and I hear him say of the Challenger crew. "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.'"
[Foot note: Peggy Noonan later learned from President Ronald Reagan that he did know that poem and had seen it every day he had taken his daughter, Patty, to grade school. So, the hunch that Peggy had about the poem and Reagan using it was right on.]