Reagan, Rhetoric, And The Challenger Disaster

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Today marks the 29th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, and, of course, the speech President Ronald Reagan delivered that night.

Compare today’s “dumbed down” political rhetoric to Reagan’s Challenger speech (crafted by Peggy Noonan), and it’s clear we have lost something along the way. The speech ends by noting the crew of the Challenger “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

Those quoted lines come from the John Gillespie Magee, Jr.’s poem “High Flight.”

Reagan took special care to speak directly to the children of America, many of whom had been watching that fateful day. For people my age, this was a defining moment. Long before 9-11 rocked our worldview, the space shuttle’s explosion was our JFK assassination. Interestingly, though, this speech always reminds me of Jack Kennedy’s little brother.

Like Reagan’s Challenger speech, RFK’s speech on the day Martin Luther King was assassinated is a masterpiece. Speaking at an inner-city neighborhood in Indianapolis, he shared his favorite Aeschylus poem. As Joe Klein notes in his book “Politics Lost,” no political consultant to day would ever permit any politician to do that — no matter how sophisticated the audience.

RFK might have been Reagan’s “ultimate villain,” but whenever I lament the dumbing down of modern political rhetoric, I draw hope from Reagan and RFK. Both men respected the intelligence of the audience, and, in the wake of national tragedies, eloquently rose to the occasion.

Having just marked the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death, and now being reminded of the Challenger speech, I’m left with this: Don’t tell me words don’t matter. We are right to long for the days when statesmen could summon the right words to calm and inspire us — when they weren’t afraid of moral clarity — and didn’t insist on speaking to us at a 6th-grade reading level.

You can watch the Reagan speech here:

Matt K. Lewis