'The Shuttle's Blown Up!'

By David Hoffman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 29, 1986

President Reagan was being briefed in the Oval Office for an interview with the television anchormen about his State of the Union address when communications director Patrick J. Buchanan burst in. "Mr. President," Buchanan said, "the shuttle's blown up!"

"That's the one the teacher's on?" Reagan asked, stunned, as he and the advisers rose and headed for the small private study nearby with a television. They turned it on and stood in a semicircle, silently, watching the videotaped replays of the disaster.

So began a day of tragedy that carried special poignancy for Reagan, who had spearheaded the idea of sending a schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe, into space. Reagan had frequently celebrated space exploration as a symbol of America's superior technology and had planned to offer a soaring and confident vision of the nation's future last night in his State of the Union address to Congress.

Instead, the disaster threw the White House into a state of confusion and numbness. It was a day of such sudden shifts in mood and expectations that, for a while, the horror of the event and the upbeat rhetoric in the planned evening speech were mingled in a bizarre tableau in the White House Roosevelt Room.

There, the president's top assistants continued discussing the State of the Union message with television correspondents while, in the background, the scene of the exploding space shuttle was repeated on a large television screen that had been wheeled into the room.

Whenever a news bulletin about the disaster was broadcast, an aide signaled White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan, who stopped the discussion in the room to hear the latest developments.

An hour and twenty minutes after the explosion, the president came into the Roosevelt Room for what was supposed to be a sales pitch for the State of the Union address. Standing by a fireplace at the head of a long, oval table, Reagan immediately acknowledged to the television correspondents that there wasn't much sense in talking about the details of the planned speech that night.

But Reagan vowed to go ahead with the address despite the accident. "There could be no speech without mentioning this," he said. "But you can't stop governing the nation because of a tragedy of this kind. So, yes, one will continue."

The explosion was "a very traumatic experience," Reagan said, relating how he had watched it in the nearby study with Vice President Bush and national security affairs adviser John M. Poindexter, among others.

But Reagan said the lesson for the many school-children who had a special interest in the space mission was that "life does go on" and "you don't back up and quit some worthwhile endeavor because of tragedy."

According to White House officials, when Reagan spoke in the Roosevelt Room, he was still reluctant to accept the fact that all seven of the crew members had been killed, and this is why he thought the State of the Union might go ahead.

A television correspondent who was present in the Roosevelt Room observed that Reagan seemed determined to go ahead with the speech to make his point that one should not quit in the face of adversity.

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© 1986 The Washington Post Company