President Obama’s moving memorial address in Tucson calls to mind other great American oratory from history, and also reminded me of an extraordinary speech that was never needed.
With men standing for the first time in history on the moon, the assignment fell to William Safire to draft remarks for the awful contingency that failure would strand and kill them there. That prospect was altogether possible.
Here is his draft of the speech Richard Nixon, thankfully, didn’t need to deliver:
To: H. R. Haldeman
From: Bill Safire
July 18, 1969.
IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER:
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
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.
These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.
They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by the nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.
In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.
In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.
Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.
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.
PRIOR TO THE PRESIDENT'S STATEMENT:
The President should telephone each of the widows-to-be.
AFTER THE PRESIDENT'S STATEMENT, AT THE POINT WHEN NASA ENDS COMMUNICATIONS WITH THE MEN:
A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to "the deepest of the deep," concluding with the Lord's Prayer.
Instead, Nixon commemorated the successful landing with typical public clumsiness in a celebratory phone call to the men on the moon:
Houston: ...We'd like to get both of you in the field-of-view of the camera for a minute. (Pause) Neil and Buzz, the President of the United States is in his office now and would like to say a few words to you. Over.
Armstrong: That would be an honor.
Houston: Go ahead Mr. President. This is Houston out.
Nixon: Hello Neil and Buzz. I'm talking to you by telephone from the Oval Room at the White House. And this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made. I just can't tell you how proud we all are of what you've done. For every American, this has to be the proudest day of our lives. And for people all over the world, I am sure they too join with Americans in recognizing what an immense feat this is. Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man's world. And as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one. One in their pride in what you have done. And one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.
Armstrong: Thank you Mr. President. It's a great honor and privilege for us to be here, representing not only the United States but United States but men of peace of all nations, and with interest and curiosity and with the vision for the future. It's an honor for us to participate here today.
Nixon: And thank you very much and I look forward - all of us look forward - to seeing you on the Hornet on Thursday.
Aldrin: We look forward to that very much, sir.