As you've seen, many of Ronald Reagan's greatest moments are being replayed all over the media. Whenever his moving speech to the nation in the wake of the Challenger disaster is replayed, I keep breaking out laughing.
Sick, right? But there's a reason.
Of course, the Challenger explosion was a horrific tragedy, and I was moved just like the rest of the nation when President Reagan gave that wonderful speech. The reason I have to stifle a laugh now is because of something Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote about in her wonderful memoir What I Saw at the Revolution.
When a speech is written in the White House, it then goes through a "staffing" process where various functionaries from the National Security Council, the State Department, and other bureaucracies contribute their suggestions for changes, laboring under the mistaken notion that they can write.
The most famous part of Reagan's brief Challenger speech, the end of it, quotes from the poem "High Flight" by John Magee. But one of the paper-pushers in the (hurried) staffing process had a better idea. As Noonan tells it (on page 257 of my copy of the book), picking up with the end of the speech:
"We'll never forget them, nor the last time we saw them--this morning, as they prepared for their journey, and waved good-by, and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."I can't hear that speech now without hearing those words in my head and cracking up.
It went almost as written. The staffing process had no time to make it bad. The worst edit, which Ben [Elliott] fought off--in fact it was the worst edit I received in all my time in the White House--was from a pudgy young NSC mover who told me to change the quote at the end from "touch the face of God" to "reach out and touch someone--touch the face of God." He felt this was eloquent. He'd heard it in a commercial.