On the night of January 28, 1986, President Reagan was scheduled to deliver the State of the Union Address. Earlier that day, the Challenger exploded just moments after launch and the disaster occurred on live television. The TV audience was particularly large because this was the first space flight in which a civilian, Christa McAuliffe, a teacher, was a part of the crew. The nation was traumatized by the scope and nature of the disaster, and President Reagan reached out to it in its grief.
Presidents have historically had this role in American history, to come alongside the people in the midst of national tragedies, offer solace, encouragement, reassurance, and renewed purpose. Some of the most important moments in American history are traced back to presidential leadership in times of tragedy and trial: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, FDR’s first inaugural (“the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”), and more recently, George W. Bush’s megaphone speech standing in the rubble of Ground Zero days after September 11.
The American presidency is unique in this aspect. There have been many great leaders of powerful empires who marshaled their oratory for important purposes. American presidents have often stood in a special way with the nation as a source of inspiration in deeply troubled times. Not all have been effective at it, but those that have been particularly inspiring have established an unwritten rule for leaders of nations everywhere: in times of national distress, be quick to connect with the nation, reassure it, inspire confidence, offer sympathy, and lead the way forward.
Reagan was good at this. Enjoy the clip.