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Responses to Memorial Service Remarks
February 4, 2003

Joshua Gunn
Louisiana State University

George W. Bush's remarks on February 1st regarding the Columbia disaster, as well as his February 4th eulogy, cannot be examined without comparison to Ronald Reagan's national address regarding the Challenger explosion on the night of January 28, 1986. Although there are many similarities between Reagan's remarks and Bush's remarks, key differences betoken very different evaluations of the space program.

Reagan's address begins with a factual description of the events, which is followed by a unifying gesture: "we share this pain with all of the people of our country." Then, the names of the astronauts who were lost are listed. The third paragraph attributes the cause of the space program as a human "hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths." The fourth paragraph reminds the audience that going into space is not mundane, and that "we've [too easily] grown used to the wonders of the century. It's hard to dazzle us." The fifth paragraph specifically addresses "schoolchildren," who are told that space exploration "belongs to the brave" and that "painful things" are inevitable. Then, in the sixth paragraph Reagan underscores his commitment to the space program and its policy of openness. Next, the lost astronauts are compared to the explorer Sir Francis Drake. Finally, Reagan closes his address with a very memorable sentence: "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God."

The overall message of Reagan's speech can be reduced to (1) a country united in grief; (2) a human desire for knowledge of the universe; (3) a resolute commitment to the space program; and (4) the solace of "God." The last line of the speech is particularly important because outer space is aligned with divinity, a highly positive association.

Bush's initial address is shorter, but follows a very similar pattern. First, there is a factual description of events, and then the names of the lost astronauts are announced. The third paragraph, like Reagan's fourth, reminds the audience of the unusually dangerous and remarkable nature of space exploration: "In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer atmosphere of the Earth." In the forth paragraph, Bush deploys the unifying gesture by saying that the "entire nation grieves" with the families of the lost. Then, just as Reagan attributed the cause of exploration to human "hunger," so does Bush characterize our program as an inevitable human tendency: "Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand." For this reason--not necessarily his own commitment--"our journey in space will go on." In the sixth paragraph the President quotes from the Bible, a frequent move in post September 11th, 2001 speeches: "In the words of the prophet Isaiah," Bush admonishes the audience to ponder the "creator" of the stars. He closes: "The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home."

Although Bush's address to the nation closely resembles that of Reagan, the key differences are telling. The themes of (1) a country united in grief; (2) a human desire for knowledge of the universe; and (4) the solace of "God" are present, but the third theme of a resolute commitment to space exploration is conspicuously absent. Although Bush remarks the space program "will go on" many times, this is a statement of fact, not policy. This absence of a policy statement is intimately related to the different ways in which the second and fourth themes are intertwined.

First, whereas Reagan likens space to the "face of God," Bush characterizes the earth's outer atmosphere as "fierce" and space as "darkness." Second, whereas the "hunger" for knowledge and exploration is positive in Reagan's speech, Bush's characterization of our "longing to understand" takes "mankind . . . into darkness," a foreboding image. In the eulogy, there is a parallel remark that is striking: "The cause of exploration and discovery is not an option we choose; it is a desire written in the human heart. We are that part of creation which seeks to understand all creation. We find the best among us and send them into unmapped darkness . . . ." In other words, the themes of human desire (2) and the solace of God (4) are deliberately linked, whereas they are kept separate in Reagan's address. This chink is unquestionably inspired by the evangelical Protestant beliefs of Bush and his speechwriters.

The primary psychic homology forged by Bush equates death with the "unmapped darkness" of space, an "impossible kernel of the Real," to borrow a phrase from Slajov Zizek. Yet Bush characterizes our curiosity about the "great unknown" as "unchosen" and as part of our "nature" in a negative manner. In his address he remarks that "we can pray that all are safely home," meaning that there is no guarantee each astronaut is with "the Creator"--a hallmark of an evangelical Protestantism that resigns the unsaved to an eternal hell. Moreover, Bush chooses to refer to "God" with the less enthymematic and inclusive term "Creator," bringing to mind the kind of creationist beliefs that appeal to a conservative, evangelical Protestant constituency. Another remark that is meant appease this constituency contextualizes a comment from Laurel Salton Clark about a hatching cocoon: "'Life,' she said, 'continues lots of places, and life is a magical thing.'" Such contextualization is unquestionably a nod to a "pro-life" members of the audience.

Bush's biblical references routinely reference the awesomeness and power of the "Creator" and the necessity of faith for life here and hereafter. His eulogistic remark that "in time [the grieving families] will find comfort and the grace to see you through" is consistent with evangelicalism, which, by definition, promises salvation only through faith and divine grace. For this reason the first astronaut mourned in the eulogy is Rick Husband, who faithfully served "his Lord." The audience is reminded that Husband's favorite hymn was "How Great Thou Art."

Understood in the context of Bush's evangelical Protestant beliefs, a very important difference emerges from the comparison of his remarks to those of Reagan: For Bush, space exploration is a Faustian bargain born of original sin. If the rhetorical features of these two recent speeches are any measure, I would not expect increased support for the space program from this administration.


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