Notes on the great communicator (1)

Thirty years ago this week, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take off. Tragically, all seven crew members were killed.

Challenger was one of those ‘did you see that’ moments of the 1980s. An horrific illustration of the great risks of space travel. It was also a tragedy captured live on national US TV networks and beamed around the world.
This wasn’t just any shuttle mission – this was supposed to be a triumph of NASA public relations strategy. Challenger was carrying Christa McAuliffe, a small town school teacher picked from thousands of would-be astronauts to join the shuttle crew.

McAuliffe had become a US celebrity, the launch had become a national event and was beamed live to classrooms across the country. Thousands of children watched the seven crew members die. 

It’s hard to overstate the shock of this disaster to the American public. For many the Shuttle was a symbol of US collective engineering genius and invincibility. Its loss, and subsequent investigation that found fault with NASA culture and communications, were profoundly affecting.

When Reagan addressed the nation on television at 5pm that night, he echoed perfectly that feeling of shock and loss. In a short speech, staring directly into the camera, he pays moving tribute to those who died.

But his address is more than just a tribute, it’s also a clever piece of positioning summing up perfectly and clearly his position and core beliefs. You can see it in full below.

Brilliantly written by columnist Peggy Noonan the speech does three things:

It restates the 40th president’s belief in the Shuttle Programme:

“We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space.”

It communicates Reagan’s pride in democracy and open Government:
“We don’t hide our space programme. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way freedom is and we wouldn’t change it for a minute.”
It recognises the shock and loss felt by many Americans:
“I know it’s hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery…the future doesn’t belong to the faint hearted, it belongs to the brave.”
And the speech finishes with a great example of perfectly placed soaring rhetoric – quoted direct from a World War II sonnet. From anybody else that might seem false, but Reagan – with his almost shy, folksy style – manages to make it work. 
“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’.

But for me, the best insight comes earlier in the address as he reminds his audience of the danger and ‘newness’ of space flight after earlier comparing the astronauts to the early explorers of the Americas.

“We’ve grown use to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us…we’ve grown used to the idea of space and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew were pioneers.”

The Death of a President

“The Lincoln continues to slow down. Its interior is a place of horror. The last bullet has torn through John Kennedy’s cerebellum, the lower part of his brain.

“…at first there is no blood. And then, in the very next instant there is nothing but blood…Gobs of blood as thick as a man’s hand are soaking the floor of the back seat…”

I recently read The Death of a President, William Manchester’s brilliant unflinching account of the events leading up to and the aftermath of the assassination of John F Kennedy in November 1963.

Everything is in here, from the paintings on the wall of the hotel room where Kennedy spent his last night alive to the layout of the emergency room the president lay in at Parkland Memorial Hospital as doctors tried vainly to save his life.

And amidst the detail, there’s some interesting insights into communication at a time of crisis – particularly in terms of the crossed lines and Chinese whispers that occur at a time of shock and trauma as people come to terms with events both sudden and surreal.

What’s surprising about The Death of A President is its revelations about how some of the most powerful people in the US were paralysed by indecision and confusion in the wake of unimaginable events.

One example comes when Air Force One prepares to leave Dallas two hours after the shooting.

Effectively, Lyndon Johnson – the Vice President – is now the man in charge, but most people in the travelling party are still in shock and can’t believe that Kennedy is no longer President.

Johnson has given the order not to take off, he wants to take the oath of presidential office while in Dallas, but no-one manages to get that order – from the most powerful man in the world – to the captain of Air Force One despite the fact they are on the same plane.

When the casket containing Kennedy’s body returns to the plane the pilot starts the sequence for take off.

It’s only after a series of mistakes and miscommunications – involving everything from Lady Bird Johnson’s left luggage to confusion over whether the press should be on the plane – that the jet stays on the ground. Nothing to do with the new President’s orders.

And after this, events take on a tone of grim farce. A photographer and a judge have to be found for the swearing-in while at the last minute someone realises there isn’t a bible and the late President Kennedy’s treasured copy has to be fetched from his cabin.

And in the fevered atmosphere outside the plane rumours and misinformation – much of it spread by media outlets trying to make sense of events – abound. Lyndon Johnson is injured and staying in Dallas, one of the body guards is dead, Kennedy was shot from the front not the back – this last myth is credited with beginning the conspiracy theory industry that later sprang up around the assassination.

It shouldn’t be surprising that great trauma and shock produces confusion and disarray no matter how powerful the people and institutions involved. But somehow we expect our leaders to be totally resilient no matter what history throws at those in charge.

We forget that people react in all sorts of ways at time of crisis. Later on their actions seem strange or random to us.

For a vivid example, look at the pictures taken at Johnson’s swearing-in or at the footage of Kennedy’s body being taken off Air Force One on return to Washington five hours after the shooting.

Look carefully and you can see dark patches all over Jacqueline Kennedy’s pink Chanel suit and her tights. Those dark patches are the dead President’s blood.

She refused to change her clothes, no doubt still in shock, but also as an act of defiance. She wanted the world to see what the assassin had done to her husband.

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