Apollo 11 reminds America what unity really means
When President Reagan talked about America being “the shining city on a hill,” it helped rally the nation around an image of American greatness. Now more than ever, it is time for more opportunities for Americans to see our president unite the country through major events that cause us to celebrate America and American innovation. President Trump took heat for moving the traditional White House South Lawn event of celebrating the Fourth of July to a massive Lincoln Memorial “Salute to America” celebration, but the jolt of presidentially-inspired patriotism is a good thing.
It is hard to imagine how radical an idea it was for President John F. Kennedy to openly call for the United States to put a man on the moon, but in the 1960s, the race to be the first into space dominated headlines. Fifty years ago Saturday, on July 20, 1969, the imaginable happened: American ingenuity, creativity and innovation prevailed, within seven years of President Kennedy making that declaration, when the three astronauts of Apollo 11 made it to the moon.
In honor of this event, President and Mrs. Nixon decided to honor not just Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins but the entire American space program at a black-tie dinner on Aug. 13, 1969, at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles.
Nixon himself spent weeks laboring over details for the international affair, focused entirely on the Apollo 11 crew. He indicated that it should be “one of the greatest and distinguished guests lists of the decade.” Ultimately, he and the first lady invited more than 1,440 people to what was billed as the “dinner of the century,” including every Cabinet member; the entire Supreme Court; more than 50 members of Congress; governors from all 50 states; members of the Diplomatic Corps; representatives from 83 nations; astronauts, former astronauts, and their wives and widows; high officials from NASA, which funded the dinner; and important figures in the history of aviation and space flight.
Not wanting anyone to outshine the guests of honor, this was not a dinner for Hollywood celebrities, although Bob Hope, Gene Autry and Jack Benny attended.
For entertainment, there was not a big-name singer; the president requested U.S. military bands and wanted his role kept to only presenting the Medals of Freedom and offering brief remarks so that more time could be given to the astronauts before the television audience.
“In their own emotion-packed words, the men who inspired other men all over the world by putting the first earthling footsteps on the moon brought the big dinner honoring them to a moving climax,” the Washington Star reported. “Cynical men choked up, too, when Armstrong, his deep voice trembling with deep emotion, voiced the hope of the Apollo 11 astronauts that their achievement marks “the beginning of an era of understanding.”
At the end, Nixon raised a glass in a toast, saying, “What fine examples to young America and young people all over the world. It has been my privilege in the White House, and also in other world capitals, to propose toasts to many distinguished people — to emperors, to kings, to presidents, to prime ministers, and, yes, to a duke.
“And tonight, this is the highest privilege I could have, to propose a toast to America’s astronauts.”
Nixon appreciated the magnitude of the moment for America. He celebrated it in a major way. And, 50 years later, there is a new sense of pride for space exploration. Every president should find such moments, be it the Fourth of July or observing American achievements such as Apollo 11, to publicly remind us we are the shining city, we are Americans and we should celebrate that every way we can.
Recently, Vice President Mike Pence said at the Smithsonian unveiling of Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit that their flight “is the only event of the 20th century that stands a chance of being widely remembered in the 30th century. And that’s what makes a day like today so important. A thousand years from now, July 20, 1969, will likely be a date that will live on in the minds and imaginations of men and women here on Earth, across our solar system, and beyond.”
Jennifer Boswell Pickens is a White House East Wing historian with expertise in White House traditions, social events and first ladies. She is the author of two books, “Christmas at the White House” and “Pets at the White House.” Follow her on Twitter at @JenniferPickens.
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