When President Bush spoke to the nation five hours after the space shuttle Columbia went silent on Saturday, he invoked the prophet Isaiah and the Creator, saying he prayed heaven's reward for America's latter-day pioneers.
Aides said the frankly religious nature of Bush's four-minute remarks was aimed largely at comforting the bereaved, and at trying to give the nation a larger context for a sudden and macabre tragedy.
For Bush, a Methodist who calls himself a born-again Christian, spiritual vocabulary is a frequent feature of his public speaking. He has often referred to his faith during his years on the national stage, going back to the earliest campaign speeches. Just last week, during his State of the Union address, he quoted a hymn, "There Is Power in the Blood," when he saluted the "wonder-working power" of American volunteers.
Bush's remarks from the Cabinet Room on Saturday afternoon included four sentences from Isaiah, ending, "Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing."
"The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today," Bush added. "The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home."
As Bush's staff began sketching out the speech, all they had to start with was the 17-year-old memories of President Ronald Reagan's remarks the night of the Challenger explosion. Quoting a sonnet by a World War II airman, Reagan said the astronauts had "slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God."
Bush's longtime confidant Karen Hughes, who now works back home in Austin, said that as soon as she was called about the Columbia disaster, she began looking through her Bible for a suitable verse for Bush to use.
"We are a nation of people of many faiths and those of no faith at all," Hughes said in an interview yesterday. "However, it's a part of the tradition of our nation that in times of turmoil and times of tragedy, our presidents and our people have turned to faith as a source of strength. We were founded on people's desire for religious freedom."
Flipping through Psalms, she started at Psalm 23, but remembered that Bush had quoted the same psalm the night of Sept. 11, 2001.
Hughes kept looking. Psalm 19 caught her eye because she saw it began with a reference to "the heavens," but it was upbeat and did not fit the occasion. Her Bible had a footnote referring her from that verse to Isaiah, where she eventually ran across Isaiah 40:26, with a fitting reference to "the heavens."
She e-mailed it to Bush's chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, who had put together a draft with two writers who work with him on Bush's most sensitive assignments, John McConnell and Matthew Scully.
The close-knit trio had three hours to craft the 373 words that included Bush's haunting declaration, "The Columbia is lost; there are no survivors." Officials called that a deliberate echo of Neil Armstrong's triumphant declaration of the first moon landing, "The Eagle has landed."
Bush's aides said they knew he would want to begin with a straightforward account of what had happened, then reaffirm the government's commitment to the space program before concluding on a spiritual note.
"It acknowledged that this is something that can't quite be explained, and offers comfort and hope at a time of destruction," an aide said.
The speechwriters pasted in the verse suggested by Hughes, and met Bush in the Oval Office after he arrived from Camp David. He ordered some changes and marked others on the draft. He liked the ending with its reference to the astronauts at home with their creator -- as much a benediction as a closing.
The remarks included no first-person reference to himself or first lady Laura Bush. It also did not mention that he had just finished an emotional call with the astronauts' grieving spouses, who were holding hands in a conference room at the Kennedy Space Center in Houston.
"It would have personalized it too much, and put himself too much in it when this was directed at the nation and the families," an official said.
Bush will continue leading the nation in mourning duties when he travels Tuesday to Houston to speak at a NASA memorial service.
The only time he was seen in public yesterday was accompanying Laura Bush in and out the side door of St. John's Church, the Episcopal congregation across Lafayette Park from the White House that is known as the "Church of the Presidents." The church has kneelers embroidered in tribute to each president, and the one in Bush's pew honors his father.
Bush, wearing glasses to read the hymns, took communion. He bowed his head as a congregation member read aloud the names of the seven lost astronauts.