Spoiler Alert: This post contains spoilers for seasons four and five of The West Wing. (Of course, those season are a decade old. So, you're probably safe to proceed at this point regardless.)


A favorite piece from the The West Wing1 is when Toby (a speech writer) is asked to draft two speeches regarding the kidnapping of the President's daughter. When asked, "Why two?" his response is, "One if they find her alive, one if they don't." President Bartlet likes the second one more and uses it (with a few modifications) when his daughter is rescued alive.

A real life example of a presidential contingency speech is found in a July 18, 1969 memo2 from speechwriter William Safire3. It was to be used by President Nixon if a problem with the Apollo 11 mission stranded the astronauts during the first moon landing. A potentially heart-wrenching circumstance where they would still be alive but doomed to die of suffocation as their air ran out.

The speech was written as follows:


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 lies 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 starts 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.

A beautiful speech that was, thankfully, never heard.

In addition to the text of the speech, the memo also contains these notes:

PRIOR TO THE PRESIDENT'S STATEMENT:

The President should telephone each of the windows-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.


I heard about this speech from episode 59 of Roderick On The Line4. The mention comes in a section where the hosts (Merlin Mann and John Roderick) are discussing just how amazing NASA's Human Space Flight program is. During the conversation, Merlin makes on of the best statements about humans launching into space that I've ever heard. He says:

You can attach dynamite to anything and send it somewhere, but for it to come back and be able to hug its kids is still, to this day, completely mind blowing.

I couldn't agree more. The fact that way more often then not contingency speeches are only found in archives of undelivered texts is another testament to the amazing things we can make and do.




Footnotes

  1. The West Wing - One of those great shows of the "if you happen to flip past an episode and it's a marathon you're automatically in for the long haul" variety. Also, if you want to get an idea of how important the acting and direction are for a show, check out the script for one of the episodes about having two drafts of the speech. Just reading the words on the page I would not have thought the episode would be as compelling as it is.
  2. The In Event of Moon Disaster page on the National Archives site has a link to the PDF of the scan of the actual memo. This reminds me that there was a time when writers were one of the few set of people who typed on keyboards for a living. It's worth it to take a look at the scan.
  3. William Lewis Safire - Born: December 17, 1929. Died: September 27, 2009. According to Wikipedia: he was an American author, columnist, journalist, and presidential speechwriter. I'll remember him as the first write I saw use the term "widows-to-be" that I hope never to have to hear again.
  4. I listen to a lot of podcasts. Most are either about coding, business or marketing. Roderick on the Line is one of the few outside those genres. It is also one of my overall favorites. It's basically two intelligent people talking about a variety of interesting things while avoiding news headlines. Highly recommended if you're into that type of thing.