On a cold winter’s morning on the 28th day of January in the year 1986, America was profoundly shaken and sent to its knees as the space shuttle Challenger gruesomely exploded just seconds after launching. The seven members of its crew, including one civilian teacher, were all lost. This was a game changer, we had never lost a single astronaut in flight. The United States by this time had unfortunately grown accustomed to successful space missions, and this reality check was all too sudden, too brutal for a complacent and oblivious nation (“Space”). The outbreak of sympathy that poured from its citizens had not been seen since President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The disturbing scenes were shown repeatedly on news networks which undeniably made it troublesome to keep it from haunting the nation’s cognizance (“Space”). The current president had more than situation to address, he had the problematic undertaking of gracefully picking America back up by its boot straps.
President Reagan, at the time in the beginnings of his second term, had successfully maintained overall a high approval rating with the American people. He had won their trust and respect by being quite relatable to the average citizen (Cannon). He had planned that evening to give his State of the Union address, but instead postponed it. The tragedy that had unfolded just hours earlier demanded his complete attention (Eidenmuller 29).
Out of this massive loss a rhetorical situation (a situation where individuals’ understanding can be altered through messages) had arose ( Zarefsky 12). The American public was in shambles, school children left with more questions than answers, and grieving families were carrying the bulk of it all (Eidenmuller 29). What this country needed now was a shoulder to lean on and a voice of guidance out of the abyss. A call of uncertainty was sent out and Reagan answered.
Reagan’s The Challenger Address is widely considered one of the finest speeches of the 20th century (Eidenmuller 27). He proves what magic can happen when there is a mastery of the rhetorical situation. This only occurs when one takes into consideration the four speech elements: audience, occasion, speaker, and the speech ( Zarefsky 13).
His audience was on the national level but more importantly an audience of mourners. He made certain to mention and give special attention to all those involved: the crew’s families, school children, NASA employees, and the entire American public. The New York Times revealed in a poll, because of the civilian teacher‘s involvement, that half of America’s school children were viewing from their classrooms (Eidenmuller 28). Reagan spoke that it was a time for “mourning and remembering” and with his tone of voice along with reassuring eye contact he successfully accomplished one goal of his address, to console the adults as well as the children.
Speeches of powerful magnitude that resonate with us and are remembered are born as the result of a...