AP Photo
William Safire, in Dec. 1968, shortly after he was appointed special assistant to
President-elect Nixon.

Safire’s Never Delivered Moon Landing Speech Still Important

October 02, 2009 11:00 AM
by Shannon Firth
William Safire’s death and the recent interest in his life’s work remind us of the value of the written word and the impact of speechwriters on history.

In Praise of Speechwriters

William Safire, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and “one of the finest writers of his generation,” according to President George W. Bush, died Sunday, Sept. 27 of pancreatic cancer, CNN reported. He’s best remembered as President Nixon’s speechwriter, and as a conservative columnist for The New York Times, according to CNN.

Two days after his death, The Blotter, a City Pages blog, presented Safire’s never-delivered moon landing speech—written in the event that astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were trapped on the moon—under the heading of “Failed moon landing speech leaks to internet.” 

“These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery,” Safire wrote. “But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.”

Following the blog post, a commenter by the name of “noodleman” rightly noted that the speech had actually been available on several Web sites for some time, and that Safire himself had included it in his book, “Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches In History.”

In his book, Safire wrote about discovering this speech in an exhibition at the National Archives, along with a copy of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and a copy of the Magna Carta. “There in the blazon of history’s majesties and oddities, in a glass case … was my little speech. Frankly, it’s presence there knocked me out,” Safire wrote.

Background: Other noteworthy presidential speeches

Peggy Noonan, a speechwriter for President Reagan, was called to compose a speech similar in nature to the one Safire had written. This time, however, it wasn’t a contingency speech. On Jan. 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart soon after takeoff, exploding and killing all on board.

Thirty years later, in her column for The Wall Street Journal, Noonan described how the speech developed. She chose a verse from a WWII poem called “High Flight,” written by Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee Jr., who died in the service.

“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them—this morning, as they prepared for their journey, and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God,’” Reagan said, paraphrasing the poem.

Curiously, according to the Telegraph, the last lines of Safire’s speech were also adapted from a poem, this one written during WWI: “The Soldier” by Rupert Brooke. “For every human being who looks up at the Moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind,” Nixon’s final lines would have been.

An excerpt from Robert Schlesinger’s book, “White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters,” published by U.S. News and World Report, describes the process of writing President John F. Kennedy’s memorable inaugural speech in which he told Americans, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

On a plane from Florida, Kennedy called Hugh Sidey, a journalist for Time Magazine, to his side and appeared to be scribbling. He then “tossed the pad into the reporter’s lap.”

“Sidey was stunned that only three days before his swearing-in, Kennedy was still working on a first draft of his speech,” Schlesinger writes. “But the truth was that the speech was in almost final form.”

Opinion: Best presidential speeches

Brandon De Hoyos, a writer for Examiner.com, lists what he considers to be the 10 best presidential speeches. The list includes President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural speech, President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech.

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