Amid a week of various kinds of mourning and recriminations and calls for civility, one contest that stood out was who gave the best impersonation of “mourner-in-chief.” On the News Hour (where they used the locution comforter-in-chief) Jim Lehrer interviewed the historian Michael Beschloss who brought up Ronald Reagan, talking from the Oval Office the evening of the Challenger explosion, praising Reagan’s performance. Though Lehrer mentioned it in his opening remarks, that Reagan was scheduled to give his State of the Union speech that night, a fact neither he nor Beschloss mentioned was that Reagan, himself, was one of the causes for the Challenger catastrophe.
Lehrer doesn’t call himself an historian, but Beschloss does, so he should have pointed out Reagan’s role in the Challenger disaster. Reagan had planned to refer that night to the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe, in his State of the Union speech and NASA knew that and it was an additional bit of political pressure on the chief bureaucrat running the launch, one thing that made him go against the judgment of a number of his engineers and scientists’ verdict that it was too cold to launch. He wanted to please the White House and had the candle lit and the whole world got to see it explode.
But Reagan got to give a speech anyway, supposedly written by Peggy Noonan, which ended with the lines from a piece of doggerel called “High Flight,” “They slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God,” which was part of a TV-sign-off tape provided by the military, which I saw a hundred times in my youth, back when TV signed off-ed. Doubtless, Peggy Noonan saw it, too, or whoever wrote Reagan’s speech. This is the speech Beschloss praised. But he didn’t give the viewers any “history”, though he is supposed to be an historian. Reagan came off smelling like a rose, and, since history is written by winners, I suppose you could say Reagan won and continues to win, since the real story of his role in the Challenger fiasco is considered only by a few. And, of course, it didn’t, in any case, change history. History, for people like Beschloss, is only those things that change history, not just what happens and why.
But it was the same amnesia everywhere else President Obama’s Tucson speech was discussed. The Washington Post’s Dan Balz, wrote, “Ronald Reagan did it with a short and eloquent Oval Office address....” The only thing the press got exercised about is the irrepressible Sarah Palin, the narcissist in waiting, and her it’s-all-about-me speech, delivered from her version of an oval office in Alaska on, what else?, Facebook. Blood libels all around.
In the States these days the bar is set so low that the fact that President Obama can deliver a few coherent, appropriate remarks to the nation, makes him stand out head and shoulders above most of the folk in Congress and in Alaska, at least those Alaskans with TV studios in their homes.
But the Republicans are now back doing their good work on the Job-Killing Heath Care Bill, talking their usual nonsense, unafraid any historian will actually point out their lies and shenanigans, since it only matters who has the power and who wins and they and their friends, like Beschloss (his wife runs a hedge fund), are certainly the winners.