William Safire was a hell of a writer. He was the Nixon-era speechwriter who gave Vice President Spiro Agnew the wonderful line “nattering nabobs of negativity,” won the Pulitzer Prize for his New York Times columns covering the misdeeds of Bert Lance, and then ended his career with a wonderful weekly column in the Times: On Language
I miss that column, where he would chronicle with great affection and little judgment the vicissitudes of the English language from street slang to bitter battles over the Oxford comma or whether or not to spell judgment or judgement. On the cusp of language in the news, he doubtlessly would have been in his element with “covfefe” last week, but he also could play the part of grammar cop without coming off as too much of a priss or traditionalist locked in the past.
“I welcome new words, or old words used in new ways,” he once wrote. “provided the result is more precision, added color or great expressiveness.”
In these days of fake news, crushing corporate bullshit, politically tempered speech and constant assaults on the First Amendment from both the right and the left, it’s frightening to think we lack a modern day Safire to call bullshit when the powers that be prevaricate, obfuscate, and spackle over the cracks of truth with their verbal wormings. Safire was a language maven — to use his preferred term — in the tradition of Mencken, Orwell and Bierce. Today we get “content marketers” and “brand message consultants” instead.
Safire’s career as a public relations man and presidential speech writer put him in the unenviable job of having to anticipate Murphy’s Law and prepare for the worst case scenario as any crisis communications pro is trained to do. In 1969, as the Apollo 11 mission sent the first men to the moon, it was Safire who took it upon himself to draft a statement for President Nixon to deliver to the nation via TV in the event the astronauts were stranded on the moon with no hope of rescue.
It’s been called one of the most beautiful speeches never delivered. Here’s the full text:
|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 their 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 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.