Words Matter

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Presidential Words Matter: Ronald Reagan on the Challenger Disaster

Season 3, Ep. 29

The Space shuttle Challenger’s launch had already been delayed twice when it finally took off on January 28th 1986. 

This particular launch was widely publicized because for the first time a civilian—a teacher named Christa McAuliffe—was traveling into space. The plan was to have McAuliffe communicate to students from space. According to the New York Times, nearly half of America’s school children aged nine to thirteen watched the event live in their classrooms. 

But tragically - After a short seventy-three seconds into flight, the world was stunned when the shuttle burst into flames, killing all seven crew members on board.

President Ronald Reagan cancelled his scheduled State of the Union address that evening and instead addressed the nation’s grief. 

A young speechwriter — a friend and hero of mine — Peggy Noonan was tasked with drafting the president’s remarks.

It was a heavy burden - as she later recalled “I kind of figured the entire nation had seen an auto accident,”

Peggy Noonan draft a speech that was aimed - as she put it “at those who were 8-years-old, those who are 18, and those who are 80 without patronizing anybody.”

It was one of the greatest speeches in presidential history and earned Ronald Reagan his now famous title “The Great Communicator” 

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