I never voted for Ronald Reagan. I disagreed with him on more things than I could possibly address in the space I have for this column. And I don’t believe the 1980s were any kind of Golden Age.
But Reagan won my respect — and gratitude — on the night of Jan. 28, 1986. That’s when he addressed a shocked nation that was grieving seven astronauts, including a civilian teacher named Christa McAuliffe, who died in an explosion only seconds after the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. McAuliffe’s inclusion in the shuttle crew brought more attention to the country’s space program probably since the Apollo program, which sent people to the moon, had stopped a decade before.
Reagan himself had announced NASA’s Teachers in Space program a couple of years prior in an effort to get school children interested in space travel as well as math and science.
And in that speech, Reagan, after speaking to the families of the astronauts (“Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, ‘Give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy.’ ”), he addressed the kids who had watched the explosion on TV that morning.
“I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen,” the president said. “It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.”
Not only were the words inspiring, but Reagan’s tone was perfect for the situation. He truly rose to the occasion.
That’s what presidents are supposed to do.
George W. Bush knew that when he spoke to emergency responders — but really to the whole county — through a bullhorn on top of a a pile of rubble of what had been the World Trade Center. Barack Obama knew it when he sang “Amazing Grace” at the memorial service held in Charleston, S.C., for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine people shot and killed by a lone white supremacist a few days before at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
Reagan, Bush and Obama and dozens of other presidents knew that an important, if unwritten, part of the job is being comforter-in-chief in times of national distress.
Events in the past week show the current president does not.
Following last weekend’s mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, President Donald Trump on Monday addressed the nation and, to his credit, recognizing that the young El Paso killer was ginned up on racist fear of dark-skinned immigrants, said, “The shooter in El Paso posted a manifesto online consumed by racist hate. In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America.”
As a speaker, Trump just doesn’t have the talent of Reagan, Obama or even Bush, and, yes, he referred to Dayton as “Toledo” in his speech.
But he was correct that the nation should condemn hate and white supremacy.
And he was right when he called for national unity: “… we must honor the sacred memory of those we have lost by acting as one people. Open wounds cannot heal if we are divided. We must seek real, bipartisan solutions.”
But Trump, being Trump, made sure to live up to the cynical expectations of his critics
By Tuesday, he once again turned to Twitter, which comedian Marc Maron has labeled “the Anger Machine,” to blast former El Paso Congressman and now presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, who had said Trump is a racist whose nasty rhetoric about Mexicans and other immigrants helped stir up violence.
The next day, when he traveled to Dayton and El Paso, Trump ranted on Twitter against various politicians and news media. It’s always Festivus with this guy. Not the feats of strength, just the airing of the grievances.
So much for unity. It’s just business as usual in 2019.
I know that a recently released recording of a 1971 conversation between Reagan and then-President Nixon revealed some ugly racist talk from Reagan, evoking laughter from Nixon.
I’m not excusing or forgiving that. But at least they had the decency to keep such talk private.