'The Best Speech Never Given' Was a Eulogy for the Apollo 11 Astronauts
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because someone has to think about what might go wrong.
By Ian Graber-Stiehl
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
“I haven’t thought about that macabre planning for three decades. Like most adults, I remembered the exhilarating ‘Men Walk on Moon’ headline,’’ former Nixon speechwriter William Safire wrote in 1999. The Los Angeles Times had just published a National Archives document drafted by the famed Watergate columnist as a never-read eulogy for the Apollo 11 crew.
That mission is now remembered as one that was bound to succeed, its inevitability scarcely more doubtable than the laws of motion … moon “truthers” notwithstanding. But Apollo 11, the spaceflight that culminated in Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s Eagle lunar landing on July 20, 1969, was far from a doubtless endeavor.
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.
The very speech that John F. Kennedy used to spark the space race and a new age of scientific discovery concealed a flicker of uncertainty. He wasn’t simply lighting a fire under a 3-year-old space agency to get them to perform the unprecedented. He was responding to the launch of Sputnik 1, which, as famed scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson points out, “was not just some orbiting spacecraft, it was a hollowed-out intercontinental ballistic missile.” In other words, Apollo 11 wasn’t born so much from fears of losing a space race as from paranoia over what could be lost if the next Soviet rocket wasn’t hollow.
Safire had the unenviable job of capturing the risk and uncertainty of the mission in fewer than 300 words, which were meant to uplift a potentially crestfallen nation.
So, with an overlay of doubt, the U.S. crew launched themselves into orbit. While Aldrin famously said “pilots have ice in their veins,” it must have been sobering from that dark, pinprick-dotted void to face their own mortality, not to mention the possibility of national defeat. Safire had the unenviable job of capturing the risk and uncertainty of the mission in fewer than 300 words, which were meant to uplift a potentially crestfallen nation. To understand Safire, though, it’s necessary to jump ahead to why he’ll likely never be remembered foremost as the writer of inspiring speeches.
Because The New York Times was “often criticized for being unduly liberal,” says Safire’s former editor Jack Rosenthal, the paper decided to hire Nixon’s wordsmith in 1973. Safire was, after all, an outspoken libertarian conservative. Rosenthal has noted before how there was a backlash to Safire’s hiring because he was seen by some as a “hired gun for the Nixon administration.” They may not have been wrong: It’s often speculated by literary critics that Safire, who galvanized the trope of using “-gate” to name scandals, did so to delegitimize his former boss.
What isn’t questionable is that he grew to become not only the paper’s most outspoken conservative voice but also one of its most cherished writers. His critiques of speech and language, in particular, drew 15,000 letters a year. His political commentary, despite often being diametrically opposed to the Times’ usual fare, was regarded as rapier wordsmanship. “Even people who hate his conclusions still love his column,” wrote one Post staffer. Except, of course, Bill Clinton, who wanted to punch Safire for dubbing Hillary a “congenital liar,” the staffer noted.
Yet, long after his voice became valued for eloquence, Safire would often write commentary in Nixon’s voice. A desire to channel Nixon’s commentary led Safire, years earlier, to his position as the president’s speechwriter. He inadvertently landed the gig after being noticed as a PR rep for a company that designed the “model American house” in which Nikita Khrushchev and then–Vice President Nixon’s infamous “Kitchen Debate” — which Safire facilitated — took place.
Afterward, over a warm beer with Nixon, whose verbal prowess had made an impression, Safire, according to his autobiography, Before the Fall: An Inside View of the Pre-Watergate White House, decided to change jobs — a decision that would land him in the White House on July 13, 1969. It was there that NASA aid Frank Borman handed him a potentially massive responsibility with a bureaucratically worded suggestion: “You want to be thinking of some alternative posture for the president in the event of mishaps.’’
The end result of that assignment was forgotten for 30 years, and might never have seen the light of day if not for LA Times journalist Jim Mann, who tells OZY that he actually sat on the story for two years, despite being initially shocked by the finding. But after he finally brought it to light, Aldrin read it and responded simply with “I am proud to say that our mission accomplished the same goals — and brought us back home safely.”
Save for the conclusion, which echoes a World War I soldier’s letter, proclaiming that a corner of another world is forever mankind’s, the 273 words are as quintessentially Safire as anything he ever wrote. And yet, just as their tone of solemn, poignant inspiration ran contrary to the eloquent acrimony for which he is remembered, they stand as a testament to how some aspects of history are so easily lost in retrospective narratives.
- Ian Graber-Stiehl, OZY Author Contact Ian Graber-Stiehl