When disaster strikes, the nation turns to the White House, expecting their president to give voice to their grief, perspective for their shock, hope in their future. They want their president--not an anchorman--to try to make sense out of what seems senseless.
Not all presidents have risen to the occasion. Perhaps none in the television era lost more opportunities than Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson's first opportunity came on his first day in office when he assumed leadership of a nation stunned by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Johnson's introduction to the country was a 58-word statement in which he pledged, "I will do my best. That is all I can do."
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Five years later, the country was rocked by two assassinations within 60 days, as Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy were gunned down. After both shootings, Johnson was more the legislator-in-chief than what presidential scholar Stephen Hess calls "mourner-in-chief." Johnson called on Congress to come back in session to approve legislation after King's death and formed a commission and demanded gun control legislation after Kennedy's.
Decades later, it fell to Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush to show how a president can mix solace, grief, and inspiration to rally a nation in the wake of blows to the national psyche.
For Reagan, it was the January 28, 1986, explosion of the space shuttle Challenger with its seven-person crew, that, memorably, included the first "teacher astronaut," 37-year-old Christa McAuliffe. The flight lasted only 73 seconds and its breakup was witnessed live by a country watching on television.