The Challenger explosion (continued) a moment of grace in the Reagan presidency

I should have given President Reagan his due on this one. On that day 25 years ago, he deployed an actor’s grace to comfort a grieving nation.

I should have included this in my last post.

Readers might be surprised to learn that I’m not a huge fan of President Reagan. In my view, his presidency diminished our country in many, many ways. At times, the only White House official personage dispensing sensible advice was the astrologer, who was wisely pandering to Nancy Reagan’s more cautious instincts.

Yet on the day of the Challenger disaster, Reagan deployed an actor’s grace to comfort a grieving nation.

His speech that day concluded:

On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, ‘He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.’ Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.

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.

My daughter and I recently watched a poignant American Experience which described Reagan’s brave, final struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Some of Reagan’s last intact memories concerned his heroism as a young lifeguard, putting a notch in a log for every person he rescued at the beach.

Now I can’t say any unkind words about Reagan within earshot of my sweet daughter, who mainly knows our 40th president as a gentle old man who bravely undertook his own final journey, waved goodbye, and slipped the surly bonds of earth.

President Reagan would be 100 years old this February 6. I won’t particularly mark the occasion. If my daughter mentions it, I’ll keep some of the less kind memories to myself. Instead, I will just note this simple moment of grace, a high point of his presidency.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

4 thoughts on “The Challenger explosion (continued) a moment of grace in the Reagan presidency”

  1. Careful, Mr. Pollack. You might want to check Richard Cook's fairly persuasive book on the Challenger explosion before we speak of any high point in the Ronald Wilson Reagan administration. While Cook is a Lew Rockwell sorta guy these days, his book reads more reasonably as a whistleblower who worked at NASA at the time. He reminds us that the shuttle development was part of the Star Wars program, was a continued p.r. bonanza for NASA and the Reagan administration, and how RWR was expected to mention the shuttle in his state of the union speech later in the evening of the day when the Challenger had launched.

    When one considers the other actions of the RWR administration, such as the Iran-Contra affairs, its possible deals with Iran during the 1980 election and its "public diplomacy" both on foreign and domestic issues (one valuable guide to the manipulation of the press under Reagan is Mark Hertsgaard's book, "On Bended Knee"), we should not be so quick to assume there is no reason to believe the RWR administration was not pressuring the Challenger's tragic launch.

  2. Peggy Noonan deserves credit for writing the moving closing lines from that speech which you cite (although of course Reagan deserves credit for saying them so well, and with such genuine feeling).

  3. Gary Wills' biography of Reagan gave me an appreciation of the man I'd never had before — he was a hell of a good lifeguard.

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