Jan. 29, 2010
My good friend Tom McClusky had the wit and the heart to remind us all of Ronald Reagans speech on the occasion of the Challenger disaster in 1986. Tom circulated the video clip of Reagan speaking to the nation that very night.
The morning had been clear and cold—in Washington as it was in Florida. I was working at the U.S. Department of Education then. We were all watching on TV as the rocket launched the Space Shuttle into the skies over Cape Kennedy. We were more interested in this flight than in many shuttle flights because a teacher was on board. In fact, we had seen Krista McAuliffe and her fellow astronauts in the elevators of F.O.B. 6—our departments office building. Thats because NASA occupied the top three floors of our building.
I remember the sickening, sinking feeling we all felt that day. It was almost like the time that President Kennedy was shot in broad daylight. We instantly thought of the millions of schoolchildren across the country who had been watching in their classrooms. Would they be scarred the rest of their lives by this horror broadcast in dying color?
No they would not. Nor would we. Thats because that very night, President Reagan came on national television to comfort, console, and communicate with all Americans. His stately words and reassuring demeanor calmed a nervous people. He was a tough Irish cop soothing us and telling us to come in off the ledge. Here is what he said that frigid night.
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 the journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”
In just hours, the pall of gloom was lifted and the nation strode forward, resolved, and encouraged.
What a contrast to President Obamas State of the Union Address, or to his speech at the Fort Hood memorial service, or, for that matter, to his Inaugural Address. Two million people came to Washington for that great and historic event. What did he say to them? I cannot recall.
This is not a partisan commentary. It is not because Reagan was a conservative Republican and Obama is a liberal Democrat that I find the words of one powerful and moving and the other incredibly insubstantial.
John F. Kennedy was a liberal Democrat, but no one who heard him could forget Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. Facing the dread prospect of nuclear war over endangered access to West Berlin, Kennedy said: Any spot is tenable if brave men will make it so. These are not googled quotes. Kennedys words are engraved on our memories. And when he was cut down, it was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, another liberal Democrat, who said: Whats the use of being Irish if you dont know the world will one day break your heart?
Middle of the road Republican Everett Dirksen provided the indispensable votes for the passage of the great Civil Rights Act of 1964. Dirksen said then: Nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come.
For those of us who love politics, there is a love of ideas. And those ideas are best expressed in unforgettable words. Is it only because we who love words best love the Word most?
Jon Favreau is President Obamas 28-year old speechwriter. He has been idolized by TIME Magazine as one of Americas 100 most powerful. Worse, hes been lionized by People as one of Americas most beautiful. Its not quite as bad as the worshipful praise heaped upon his chief. But it hasnt done him any good. He is paid $172,000 a year as a wordsmith. What enduring words has he smithed?
Question: Can anyone remember anything this youngster has written? The State of the Union Address is barely 48 hours old. It was embargoed lest a syllable of its deathless prose leak out to a waiting world. It was received with rapt attention by the Vice President and Speaker, and interrupted a hundred times by applause. OK, most of the applause came from his Amen corner; still, it was lusty applause.
But what did he say that any of us can remember? Liberals grumblingly conceded that Reagan was a Great Communicator, as if that was all there was to his connection with the American people. Reagan, in his Farewell Address, demurred, saying he had the privilege of communicating great ideas.
What great idea did President Obama communicate on Wednesday night? I will not quit! Is that it? Hold the mallets. Hold the chisels. House the marble.
Spindrift is a wonderful word. It describes that frothy combination of sea and salt and strong wind that scuds along the crest of the waves in a storm. Spindrift is a part of the lore and life of the sea. When the waters calm, however, spindrift disappears. It evanesces. Like the words of Barack Obama.