Ronald Reagan's Presidency

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How does Ronald Reagan in his Challenger speech use ethos, pathos, and logos to persuade the audience?

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There is, of course, a certain degree of ethos already built-in to a presidential address to the nation. Reagan uses the prestige of his position to affirm the value of the astronauts' sacrifice for their country and to assure his listeners that nothing will change. The American way remains the...

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There is, of course, a certain degree of ethos already built-in to a presidential address to the nation. Reagan uses the prestige of his position to affirm the value of the astronauts' sacrifice for their country and to assure his listeners that nothing will change. The American way remains the right way, despite this tragedy:

I've always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don't hide our space program. We don't keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That's the way freedom is, and we wouldn't change it for a minute.

Reagan uses pathos in his emotive language, particularly pertaining to the achievements of the astronauts (brilliantly, wonder, dazzle) and the pain of their families. He also considers the tragedy from the viewpoint of children. He ends the speech with two moving quotations from John Gillespie Magee, a poet and pilot who died in a mid-air collision at the age of nineteen. The reference to touching the face of God suggests both the mission of the astronauts and a hope for eternal life after their death.

Logos is present in the idea that space exploration is a very new phenomenon and the Challenger crew were pioneers. Reagan has to tread carefully here, since he does not want to sound cold-hearted by saying something like: "We have only just started exploring space, so accidents are to be expected."

The continual use of pathos to honor the dead and empathize with the grief of those who mourn for them prevents this thought from sounding callous and provides a good example of why effective public speakers seldom rely on logos alone.

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Reagan's Challenger Speech, given on January 28, 1986 after the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, is a masterful example of rhetoric. Reagan uses pathos several times to make his audience empathize with the dead astronauts. For example, he says, "For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we're thinking about you so very much." These sentences evoke compassion in the people listening.

He also uses logos, or reason, to convince his audience that the death of the Challenger crew achieved something. He says, "The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them." This use of logos, or logic, justifies the crew's death because they were advancing science when they died.

Finally, Reagan uses ethos to establish the crew's credibility. He says:

"There's a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake's, complete."

By connecting the Challenger crew with the famous explorer Sir Francis Drake, Reagan is helping the astronauts' journey claim an important place in the annals of history. As the astronauts are like Drake, they are important figures in the nation's history.

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Ronald Reagan’s response was heart-felt and effective because he used pathos to appeal to emotion, logos to appeal to logic, and ethos to appeal to authority.

The three Greek words ethos, pathos, and logos are often used to refer to persuasive appeals used by public speakers and others trying to convince.  In responding to a disaster like the Challenger Explosion, it is a president’s job to help the country heal.  Reagan’s speech is carefully designed to do just that by appealing to our emotions.

Pathos, the appeal to emotion, seems like the most obvious in a tragedy.  However, everyone is already sad.  Everyone feels the depths of emotion. So pathos can actually be the hardest to handle, because rather than bringing up emotions you are trying to harness them.  You are trying to make sense, and help other people make sense, of how they feel.

But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, "give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy.

With this line, Reagan both acknowledges the trauma and celebrates the sacrifice.  He carefully reminds the listener that the astronauts were brave and special, without belaboring the point.

Logos is a reference to logic, or the facts of a situation.  Sometimes in a period of great pain, it is hard to remember what really is happening.  In this case, Reagan has the unfortunate responsibility of having to remind people that these astronauts were doing their job, and while this does not diminish their sacrifice, it acknowledges that they were prepared to make it.

We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the member of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.

Finally, ethos is used in an interesting way here.  Ethos usually refers to mentioning experts or important people you can use to convince people of things.  In this case, Reagan wants to convince the public that it is not over, and there will still be people going into space, despite the tragedy.

We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.

This is in some ways the most important message of all.  We are not beaten by this.  We are saddened, but there are still people willing to put their lives on the line for what they consider an important cause.

This speech is important to our history not just because it was a personal tragedy for every American, but because it demonstrates our resolve.  As Americans, we do not give up in hard times.  We push on, and strong leaders help us do so. 

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