On the morning of January 28, 1986, the U.S. space shuttle Challenger exploded just over a minute after liftoff. The explosion killed all seven crew members, including a high-school teacher named Christa McAuliffe who was part of NASA’s Teacher in Space Project. That night, President Ronald Reagan was slated to give his State of the Union address. Instead, he and his White House team quickly shifted gears, and that evening, from the Oval Office, he gave a short, nationally televised, 648-word speech about the tragedy. The four-minute speech, with its famous closing about how the fallen heroes “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God,” became not only one of Reagan’s best-known and best-loved speeches but also one of the most famous and important pieces of presidential rhetoric in history.
Beyond its place in that history, though, the speech and its creation provide us with an illuminating window into the Reagan method and approach, and can help teach bereft conservatives today about the crucial elements of a successful presidency.
Reagan was meeting with staff in the Oval Office that Tuesday morning when the Challenger exploded. Upon hearing the news, Reagan left the Oval and went into his nearby study to watch the television footage. Reagan was transfixed, watching as the explosion was shown over and over again. The experience of repeated watching of the explosion was a bond he shared with countless Americans — many of whom were watching to see the first teacher in space — and even made its way into his remarks. As Reagan said in the speech, “On the day of the disaster, our nation held a vigil by our television sets. In one cruel moment, our exhilaration turned to horror; we waited and watched and tried to make sense of what we had seen.”
In the aftermath of the explosion, Reagan made some key decisions. In addition to delaying the State of the Union in favor of an Oval Office address on the tragedy that night, Reagan developed a response plan to the disaster. He sent Vice President George H. W. Bush to Cape Canaveral, the site of the shuttle’s launch, to convey his respects to the families of the fallen. Reagan also called on acting NASA administrator Bill Graham to investigate the crash. These decisions showed Reagan’s willingness to change course when necessary and his ability to delegate.
Moreover, Reagan understood the president’s vital role in the Challenger drama. He had to give a speech that would soothe the nation in a difficult time, and his team had only six hours in which to prepare it. The speechwriting assignment went to Peggy Noonan. Famous today, Noonan was not well-known at the time, just “a little schmagoogie in an office in the Old Executive Office Building,” as she put it a few years ago. But she had a reputation for being good at the emotional speeches. When such a speech was needed, Chief of Staff Don Regan had been known to say, “Get that girl . . . you know, have that girl do that.” Noonan set to work, making sure to solemnly note the tragedy, speak positively about space exploration, and put in a touch of poetry.
Even though there was an abbreviated staffing process because of the tight deadline, Noonan faced bureaucratic resistance to her most resonant lines. Her toughest fight was over the words from the poem “High Flight” (by an Anglo-American fighter pilot, John Gillespie Magee Jr.) toward the end of the speech. A National Security Council staffer, whom Noonan discreetly but harshly described as a “pudgy, young NSC mover,” demanded that she change the words “touch the face of God” to “reach out and touch someone—touch the face of God.” Not only would this unwise revision have mangled the words from the original poem, but “reach out and touch someone” was a banal slogan from an AT&T ad campaign at the time. An irate Noonan fought back against the misguided edit, and won.
With the speech written, Reagan then had to give it. Here he was at his best. His Hollywood experience had taught him how to interact with a camera, and he did it exquisitely. As one aide recalled about him, “He’s an actor. He’s used to being directed and produced. He stands where he is supposed to and delivers his lines, he reads beautifully, he knows how to wait for the applause line.”
The rhetoric of the speech, like his delivery of it, was Reaganesque. One of Reagan’s signature qualities was his strong sense of optimism, which informed his positive view of America. To Reagan, there was no obstacle that America could not overcome. While he recognized the tragedy that had just taken place, and was careful to read the names of each of the seven fallen, he did not express regret about the endeavor. In his praise of the space program’s innovation was a recognition that there is inherent risk — and at times mortal danger — in aiming to attain technological and civilizational advancement.
The Challenger speech was a success. It even went over well with Democrats, something hard to imagine in today’s more partisan times. Tip O’Neill, the Democratic speaker of the House, recalled generously in his memoir that “it was a trying day for all Americans, and Ronald Reagan spoke to our highest ideals.” More importantly for Reagan, the Chairman of the Board himself liked it — as the president reported to Noonan, “Frank Sinatra called me, and Frank Sinatra didn’t call me after every speech, let me tell ya.” Reagan enjoyed the accolades from Democrats and entertainers, unlikely sources of praise for Republican presidents today. But Reagan did not need external validation to understand that he had done a good job with the speech. As Noonan put it, “Reagan came up in show business, and he knew when something landed.”
In this one four-minute speech, Reagan managed to highlight everything that was great about his presidency, both the man himself and his administration. He responded swiftly and capably to disaster; he knew how and to whom to delegate; he understood how to use his own gifts in areas in which he could do the most good. The speechwriting process itself, part of the bare-knuckled infighting that took place in Reagan’s lightly managed White House, instructs us about the need for talented staffers to stand their ground in the face of bureaucratic resistance to get the best results for the president and for the country.
In his response to the Challenger disaster, we see Reagan’s gifts as a performer and his commitment to elevating rhetoric that helped inspire the American people. We see his ability to reach across the aisle with unifying words and sentiments and, in doing so, bring the country together in a way that seems beyond presidential capabilities in today’s hyper-partisan era. Reagan later recalled January 28, 1986, as “one of the hardest days I ever spent in the Oval Office.” It may have been hard, but Reagan, as always, made it look easy.
This is a shorter version of an essay written for the Ronald Reagan Institute’s “Essay Series on Presidential Principles and Beliefs.”