Tevi Troy on Reagan’s Challenger Speech at 35

On the 35th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, historian and author Tevi Troy talks about Reagan’s Challenger Speech: A Four-Minute Window into Presidential Greatness.

I’ll never forget where I was when I heard the Challenger had exploded: Mr. Thornton’s class at Middletown Middle School in Maryland. People my parent’s age used to always say that they remembered where they were when they heard John F. Kennedy was shot. For my generation, this was our version of that: the end of the innocence. What is more, because the Challenger crew included a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, millions of schoolchildren were watching it live. This was one of those moments that called for a leader who could unite and inspire us. Thankfully, we had one.

On the 35th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, historian and author Tevi Troy joined the podcast and talked with me about his recent National Review column on Reagan’s Challenger Speech: A Four-Minute Window into Presidential Greatness.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.

The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity:

Matt: I played Reagan’s Challenger speech for my kids this morning, as I drove them to school. I think it impressed them when I told them that I know the lady who wrote it. And then my son asked, “Are the things presidents say always written in advance?” And I said, “Well, you know, a President's words have power to do great harm or great, good. So when something important happens, they should try to be very precise and get it just right.”

Tevi: There's a story I tell in the National Review piece today about this national security staffer, who kind of tried to change the words of the [Peggy] Noonan speech. And Noonan had these words “touch the face of God” in it. And he tried to change it to “reach out and touch someone,” which is an AT&T slogan, and she fought back and she said, “No, we're not doing that.” And she won—and good for her. But not everybody does that inside the White House staffing process. Sometimes you say, “Oh, well, the National Security Council says that we have to go along with it.” It kind of reminds me of the famous incident with the “Tear down this wall!” line. The lines written by another great Reagan speechwriter, Peter Robinson. And he fought and fought and fought for those words “tear down this wall” and NSC was opposed to it and the State Department was opposed to it, and it went on for a while. And Peter Robinson actually said that he had to do something a little backhanded. He got the speech or the words directly to Reagan, and got Reagan to approve it, which is not necessarily going within the normal orderly process. But you needed to fight for your words, and he did, and he won. And Peggy Noonan fought for her key words, especially the “touch the face of God” idea, and she won, and thank God for it.

Matt: If Reagan had said “reach out and touch someone,” that would have been like, “Where's the beef?”—that would have taken it from being one of the greatest lines of presidential rhetoric to being like a cheap 1980s TV ad.

Tevi: Right, and it also transcends time. If you made it, like the AT&T slogan, “reach out and touch someone,” it have been kind of stuck in that time. And now, we're talking about the speech 35 years later, because of its brilliance. And look, you know, people said Obama was a great speechmaker. I don't know of any great speeches he gave as president. He did give a great speech at the ‘04 Democratic Convention. But I don't know any words that he said as president that were loaded into a teleprompter that we still know today. Similarly with other presidents. I mean, Bill Clinton, is known for “I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” The words that presidents —in recent years—are known for are not that great…Reagan's kind of like an oasis of great, great rhetoric in a sea of unfortunate comments. And it's not just Democrats. Gerald Ford is known for “our long national nightmare is over,” which is basically about the pardoning of Nixon. And Nixon is known for “I am not a crook.” So none of the recent presidents have said something great, other than Reagan and Reagan has multiple--

Matt: I might quibble with you, I would say that George W. Bush's, improvisational line: “Well, I can hear you and the people who knocked down these buildings are going to hear from all of us,” that turned out to be pretty good extemporaneous rhetoric.

Tevi: I agree with you on that. But it was, again, extemporaneous. And it was not written into speech. So what I'm saying is, there were no great lines written for presidents that presidents have delivered in the last 50 years other than Reagan, that are memorable. 

Matt: You know, what it reminds me of is, you know, I'm a wannabe guitarist, and there are guitarists like Yngwie Malmsteen and Joe Satriani and these people who are considered to be like technical virtuosos, but like, you're never gonna whistle in a Malmsteen song. But there are other guitarists, who are probably not as technically proficient who have written hooks that we all remember in our heads, right. And so, um, yeah, Obama might have technically been a great speaker in many ways. But do you? Do you remember anything he said, you know, other than, like, “we are the ones we've been waiting for'' or whatever that was—

Tevi: Right. But also his famous line about healthcare, right? “No one will have to change their health care.” I mean, “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor”. Yeah.

Matt: Let me ask you this about. So Peggy Noonan, I'm guessing, is like, maybe…maybe 30 years old at this point? I don't know. How does she know the poem “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr? How does she know that poem? And were most Americans familiar with it? Today, if I referenced a line like, “These, these jobs are going boys, and they ain’t coming back,” most people our age would know that that's like from a Bruce Springsteen song. Did most Americans know that this was a poem—and get the reference to the part about “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God”?

Tevi: So I don't know if most Americans knew it. But I do know this, that they did use to teach poetry in schools. And kids learned poetry and learn to appreciate it. And I'm sure she got it from some kind of reference book because they didn't have the internet back then. But it was just a different education. And it's true that Springsteen’s music may be the poetry of our generation, but it's not the same as great, the great poets of days past. And I think we are losing a little bit of the bond to Western civilization in the quest for “wokeness” in both our high schools and in our colleges.

Matt: Now obviously, this speech is great, you know, it's a well written speech. But it's also delivered very well and talk about the importance of that. But Reagan, as an actor, was able to take what was a very good speech, and also sell it.

Tevi: He was the best speech deliverer of my lifetime. I know a lot of people listening, maybe, didn't live under Reagan. But he was an actor, he knew how to hit his marks. He knew how to sell his lines. There's a great, great story, where Reagan is doing an ad and Nancy's in the room with him. It's in the White House, and she keeps trying to correct him and say, “Oh, Ronnie, do it this way around and do it that way.” And at one point, he looks at her, he says, “You know, Nancy, I have done this before.” So he was incredibly experienced, he was comfortable in front of a camera, he knew how to give his lines, and he just did it. And he kind of also knew when it sold. So he knew when he came up with something, and it worked really well. And so I talked about in the piece how people like [Speaker of the House] Tip O'Neill said nice things about the speech. And Frank Sinatra called him, and Reagan actually told Peggy Noonan that Sinatra called him and said, “Frank Sinatra doesn't call me after every speech, let me tell you.” But Reagan knew when something landed, that's what Peggy Noonan said about it. He knew that one really sang. And we're still talking about it today, for that reason.

Click here to listen to our full conversation.