In the event of moon disaster, and other speeches our presidents never gave


Old-fashioned screenshot: you can even see the TV rollbar

Two days before the first astronauts walked on the moon, H. R. “Watergate Bob” Haldeman directed Nixon speechwriter William Safire to come up with something for the president to say to the astronauts’ widows. Just in case.


Since there’s no wind on the moon, the flag that the astronauts planted on the lunar surface had to be artificially stiffened to give the illusion of waving.

When something’s in the offing and politicians have to give a speech about it, they may prepare for different outcomes by having a positive speech in one pocket and a negative speech in the other.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon and returned to earth, and the terse disaster speech entitled “In event of moon disaster” was eventually consigned, along with the rest of the Nixon papers, to the National Archives. A researcher looking for material on Nixon in China accidentally found it there thirty years later, just before the anniversary of the first moon walk.

On July 7, 1999, the Los Angeles Times printed Bill Safire’s alternate memo, which announces that the astronauts, unable to return from the moon’s surface to the lunar orbiter, are being left there:

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.

Safire sketched a scenario in which NASA literally pulled the plug, turning off communications with the lunar module while a minister, echoing the traditional burial at sea, commended the astronauts’ souls to “the deepest of the deep.”


An excerpt from Safire’s two-page 1969 memo, with the subject line: “In event of moon disaster.” In two additional pages, Nixon’s speech writer suggested what the president might say to the widows and sketched a scenario for presenting the news to the American public.  

A week after it surfaced, Safire acknowledged his memo in the New York Times. Like everyone who had known of its existence, he was relieved that his scenario had proved unnecessary. But Safire didn’t regret the planning. After all, Ronald Reagan had no “disaster speech” to whip out when the Challenger blew up 17 years after the moon landing.

The moon disaster memo has surfaced again, thanks to journalists who seem to have forgotten its discovery two decades ago, and its rediscover in 2009, and who seem to have forgotten as well that every election day, candidates walk around with an acceptance speech in one pocket and a concession speech in the other.


Despite the Chicago Tribune’s premature headline, Harry Truman didn’t actually have to make his concession speech, but the candidate, who was far behind in the polls during the 1948 presidential campaign, surely had one crumpled up in his pocket as he rode the victory train to Washington on Nov. 3. 

Other presidents have had alternative speeches handy as well. George Washington warned against foreign entanglements in his Farewell Address, which was in his waistcoat pocket. But the speech he meant to give, the one that he left in his overcoat, urged the new United States to build more airports to support the new nation’s global presence.

It was only by sheer luck that John Fitzgerald Kennedy gave one of the most memorable presidential inaugural addresses. In his other pocket were the words to his favorite song, “Camelot,” which he was going to perform as a karaoke number, only it was too cold for him to sing that day.


Jack Kennedy delivering the line, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” He wanted to sing his favorite “Camelot” song instead, but it was too cold.

And when Bill Clinton testified before the grand jury in 1998, the president had in his other pocket a dictionary which clearly defined what the meaning of the word is is.


Bill Clinton wonders what the meaning of the word is is, even though he had an exact definition of the word is in the alternate testimony that he kept in his other pocket. 

Richard Nixon hadn’t always been as well prepared earlier in his career as he was for that Apollo moonshot. When he was accused of graft while running for vice president in 1952, Nixon could only afford one speech, the one in which he defended Pat Nixon’s “respectable Republican cloth coat” and insisted that his family would keep Checkers, the puppy that had been the gift of a Texas supporter. If he had really been taking bribes, Nixon told American television viewers, he would have bought a much better speech:

I should say this, that Pat doesn’t have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat, and I always tell her she would look good in anything. . . . A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention that our two youngsters would like to have a dog, and, believe it or not, the day we left before this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore, saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was? It was a little cocker spaniel dog, in a crate that he had sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, the six year old, named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it.

In that speech Nixon established the principle that presidents ought to be able to receive emoluments so long as they could be explained in a way that would bring a tear to the eye. And when Nixon became president in 1968 and began earning serious money on the side, he resolved always to have an extra speech handy so people wouldn’t be able to make fun of him so easily.

When the Watergate scandal broke in 1973, Nixon actively deployed his two-speech strategy, one speech taped secretly in the oval office, the other, very different, speech delivered publicly before television cameras.

The issue of Nixon taking graft resurfaced toward the end of the Watergate investigations, and Nixon addressed this issue head on from the podium at a meeting of the Associated Press managing editors in Orlando: “People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.”

But most Americans thought he must have been reading the wrong speech, and one day a researcher in the National Archives may accidentally stumble over the speech that Nixon had in his other pocket in Orlando on Nov. 17, 1993, the one that his speechwriters tersely headed, “I am a crook.”


Richard Nixon telling the nation, “I am not a crook.” But he was.


Hey you guys, you is already plural

Should we get rid of the plural you guys because it’s sexist? Joe Pinsker, writing in theAtlantic, reports a growing resistance to the common use of you guys—along with hey guys, and just plain guys—to address mixed groups of men and women, as well as single-sex groups of only women. Pinsker finds that trans and gender-nonconforming people feel excluded by you guys; that teachers and business people reject you guys as not inclusive; and that lots of people want to ditch you guys in favor of something gender neutral, like folks, or people, or comrades.

Then Pinsker adds this peculiar observation by way of explaining why you guys is so popular: “English lacks a standard gender-neutral second-person plural pronoun.” He actually says this twice.

But that is flat-out wrong. English has always had a gender-neutral second-person plural pronoun: you.

You has been the second-person plural pronoun since the days of Old English. You has always been everyone’s second-person plural, from Beowulf to both the Queens Elizabeth (or if you prefer, both the Queen Elizabeths). It’s the second-person plural for Joe Pinsker, and it’s the second-person plural for me and you as well. It’s singular you that’s the newcomer.

When English started out, when the Angles and the Saxons and the Jutes left their continental homes and crossed the Channel, and Theresa May and Boris Johnson weren’t around to stop them from immigrating, they brought with them a bunch of continental pronouns, including the second-person singular thou, and the second-person plural you. By the fourteenth century, speakers of English started using you as a polite or deferential singular: a peasant might call a knight you, for example, and the knight, in turn, would take the peasant’s crops and call the peasant thou, just to emphasize the power dynamic and to remind the peasant of the vast social gap between them.

Here are two other examples of English plural pronouns used as singular: the royal we,or in countries without a monarchy, the editorial we. And singular they, which appears in English writing as early as the fourteenth century.

By the seventeenth century, singular you started to appear not just as a polite form, but in every context, and singular thou and the other th- forms, thee, thy, and thine, began to disappear. By the nineteenth century, that changeover was all but complete, andthou, they, and thy were relegated to regional or dialect speech, where they remain. For example, in D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) Mellors, the gamekeeper, uses tha when he’s in bed with Lady Chatterley, while she uses singularyou to him. Because in England, the words you use reflect your social class, even during sex. We still use thou, thee, and thy today in standard English, but only jokingly to sound old fashioned—it’s so faux Shakespearean.

So if you has been plural for 1,500 years, what accounts for the popularity of you guys? And why did it become universally popular at the same time that another masculine form, generic he, went stake-through-the-heart dead? Because in modern English, the second-person plural and the second-person singular are the same word: you, and that creates the possibility for ambiguity: are you (one, single person) talking to me? or areyou (a whole bunch of people, plural) talking to me? Apparently, the need for a clearly and unambiguously plural you trumps the desire to be gender-inclusive, and so, for most people—not for everyone—either guys has lost its gender-marking, or what marking it may retain has become no big deal.

Back in the day, not everybody approved of the upstart singular you, but that didn’t stop the form from taking over. In 1660, George Fox, better known as the founder of the Society of Friends (the Quakers), wrote a whole book railing against singular you. Fox called anyone using you instead of thou an idiot and a fool.


George Fox, A battledore for teachers and professors to learn singular and plural, 1660.

Nobody paid attention to Fox’s objections. They were too busy using singular you. Yet for two centuries grammar books continued to teach that thou was the second-person singular, and you, the plural, and teachers expected students to write thou on grammar tests, even though students were using singular you when their teachers weren’t looking, and the teachers used singular you when the students weren’t around.


Pedantic to the end, Lindley Murray insisted on singular thou, plural you, in his popular school grammar

But singular you wasn’t the last change for the second person pronouns. Not even close. Once you became solidly singular as well as plural, people began to assume that ambiguous you was basically a singular pronoun—that’s Joe Pinsker’s assumption in hisAtlantic piece—and when they wanted to be extra clear that they were using a plural, they invented the new plurals y’all, youse, and you’uns. But like thou, thee, and thybefore them, these new pronouns carried the stigma of nonstandard or regional use. They were confined to the spoken language, not considered suitable for formal, written English.

Gender-specific masculine you guys first appears in the 1890s, but in the 1960s and 1970s, gender-neutral you guys starts popping up as well. You guys has always been informal, but unlike y’all, youse, and you’uns, it was never regional. Yes, some people in the ’70s and ’80s thought it was objectionably sexist—but apparently not being regional was a big enough plus that most people didn’t worry about the sexism part, and you guys began its gradual takeover as the emphatic second-person plural in informal, spoken English. It’s not marked for region. It’s not marked for class. It’s not marked for level of education.

But pronoun evolution wasn’t done. People in the American south began to use y’all ambiguously to refer to one person as well as groups of people. Y’all became a polite singular, like you back in the fourteenth century. There are still some southerners who insist that singular y’all is an error introduced by carpetbaggers. Even when confronted with proof, they refuse to acknowledge that any real southerner would ever use singular y’all. They explain that the user is really a Yankee. Or that yes, the good ole clerk at the Gas-N-Go was clearly addressing one person—you can see it on the CCTV tapes—but by saying “y’all come back” they meant you (the person addressed) and all your friends and relatives—it was an implied plural. But enough people must be using singular y’all that it’s triggered yet another disambiguating plural, all y’all. And so at least for now, all y’all is about as unambiguously plural as a second-person pronoun can get. But unlike you guys, all y’all is still a regional form.

So what about the new campaign to oust you guys? Campaigns against particular idioms don’t work well. They didn’t work for George Fox. By the time he began his protest against singular you, it was already too late to stop the change. For more than a century, schoolteachers have waged a campaign to eradicate ain’t from English. They managed to stigmatize the word, but ain’t is still going strong. Campaigns don’t stand much of a chance of ousting you guys, either. Grammar shaming may make people feel bad about their language use. It may make them self-conscious. Or reluctant to speak. But it won’t change what people say or write, and if they’re determined to say you guys, then they’ll continue to say you guys. And if they want to go with a new second-person plural, they’ll do that too. Just don’t count on the new plural being folks, or people, or comrades. Or peeps. I mean, peeps? really?

In which Pooh tries a nonbinary pronoun

In 1929, a year after a new voting law extended suffrage to all women in England, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin delivered a radio address on education in which he referred to children—boys and girls—as he. This prompted the well-known suffragist, Lady Annette Matthews, to write a letter to the Times complaining that Baldwin’s gaffe demonstrated “the need for a bi-sex pronoun, which would remove from the newly enfranchised woman elector the absurd position of being left to the imagination, or appearing as an afterthought in parenthesis.”

Generic he leaves women out. Matthews’ call for a nonbinary pronoun to replace it prompted men with names like Col. Tusker Mountebank, MBE, Major-General Havenot à Clue, or the Rev. L’Otherfoot, to write to the Times championing the invented pronouns vey, su, tu, oo, heshe, un, hes, lu, heoshe, and hesh. And one woman, Agnes Carter, defended singular they. Carter reasoned that, if plural you can function as a singular, then why not they as well?

Another writer, Lonely in Leeds, felt compelled to mansplain to those readers who might have missed the whole suffrage thing that a new pronoun would placate “what is known as the woman’s movement,” despite the fact that the phrase the woman’s movement had been around for about 80 years, adding his own expert opinion that “the English tongue was framed in days when women were of less account.” Having failed in their attempt to keep women from voting, men like Lonely insisted that any new pronouns should be women’s work, since the need for a new pronoun was clearly women’s fault.


Then, in 1930, A. A. Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh, addressed the pronoun issue in his introduction to The Christopher Robin Birthday Book. According to Milne, in a perfect world English speakers would say heesh:

You notice that I say ‘he or she’. If the English Language had been properly organized by a Business Man or Member of Parliament, instead of living from hand to mouth on almost anybody who happened to be about with a pencil, then there would be a word which meant both ‘he’ and ‘she’, and I could write, ‘If John or Mary comes, heesh will want to play tennis’, which would save a lot of trouble. Also I could have made a much better thing of this Birthday Book. As it is, most of the quotations refer definitely to one sex, and more often to ‘he’ than to ‘she’. But you must not let this worry you. If Aunt Emily’s birthday is on July 2nd— well no, let us hope it isn’t; but if it were on April 2nd—no, that’s wrong. Well, what I mean is that the motto for May 11th, ‘He’ll know what to do’, can be read, if necessary, as ‘She’ll know what to do’, and so on and so forth, and vice versa and otherwise. I hope that’s clear. [The Christopher Robin Birthday Book, London, 1930; rpt. New York: Dutton, 1931, pp. vi-vii.]

The Birthday Book presents a quote or motto from one of Milne’s books for each day of the year. The motto for July 2 is “He just happened to hiccup While signing his name” (Now We are Six). Women like the imaginary Aunt Emily, Milne seems to suggest, don’t hiccup in public. April 2 reads, “If John were Me, and I were John, I shouldn’t have these trousers on” (Now We are Six). Here Milne implies that he can’t mean she on April 2 because women don’t wear trousers. And the May 11 motto, the one that Milne suggests could be read for either sex without seeming rude, is “He’ll know what to do” (The House at Pooh Corner).


Christopher Robin going down the stairs with Pooh, from Winnie the Pooh, 1926

A. A. Milne was not the first person to offer nonbinary heesh.The pronoun appears earlier, around 1865, and again in 1900, and it is re-invented or revived from time to time from 1930 to the present. The related hesh was coined as early as 1875 and it too reappears frequently, as does heer, another pronoun formed by blending masculine and feminine forms.

Most coiners of nonbinary pronouns toiled in obscurity, but Milne was a well-known literary figure, and today, discussions of nonbinary pronouns often repeat a truncated version of his comments from The Birthday Book because everybody knows Winnie the Pooh.

What most people miss, however, is the fact that Milne shrugs off heesh as soon as he mentions it in favor of generic he. And despite what Milne says about how to achieve a perfect language, neither the business types nor the MPs of the day were particularly versed in designing language, which really does belong to anyone with a pencil or a voice. Milne’s subtext is that no one really listens to a pronoun coiner. Even more telling is the fact that, in the absence of any real commitment to heesh, Milne concludes that he can be read as she, not always, to be sure—not in mottoes about hiccups or trousers—but certainly on May 11th and at some other times of the year as well.

That’s the problem with generic masculines: he just can’t be counted on to be generic. That was certainly the case with suffrage. In 1850, the MPs made a rare attempt to design language when they passed the Act of Interpretation, a law providing that when words denoting males appeared in statutes, they included women as well. The U. S. Congress passed a similar law in 1871. These he-means-she laws, drafted by men, some of whom actually supported women’s right to vote, prompted suffragists to argue that he in the voting laws gave women the vote. But English and American courts disagreed, ruling repeatedly that yes, he meant she when it came to obligations like paying taxes or punishments like going to jail. But when it came to privileges like voting, holding elected office, or entering a boys-club profession like law or medicine, he always meant “no women allowed.”

Women did get the vote—a 1918 law enfranchised English women who met certain property and residence requirements, and a 1928 law gave the vote to all women—as well as to men—regardless of their net worth. American women got the vote in 1920 with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. But the politically-charged pronoun he remained a sore point. In 1922, the San Antonio Evening News shrugged off the suggestion that Edith Wilmans would not be allowed to serve as the first woman elected to the Texas state assembly because the law referred to Texas legislators as he. According to the News, the faux-generic he does even worse damage: “That’s nothing. The same pronoun stands between many women and their liberty.”


A. A. Milne may have floated the idea of nonbinary heesh to get away from the damage that gendered pronouns do. But he was no social radical, at least so far as grammar was concerned, and Milne had no problem fitting generic he into the primarily boys-club world of Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh, and their companions in the Hundred Acre Wood.


Another family of bears weighs in on the gender issue


The Babel Proclamation: Celebrating a century of banning foreign languages in America

On May 23, 2018, America celebrated the centenary of the Babel Proclamation. That was the day, 100 years ago, when Iowa Gov. William Harding banned the public use of all foreign languages: in schools, on trains, at meetings, in church, even on the phone.

They called it the Babel Proclamation. America was at war, and German—commonly spoken in Iowa at the time—was the language of the enemy. When asked why he banned all languages and not just German, Harding explained that “German intrigue does not confine itself to the German language. The fact is they find it more convenient now to use other languages.” Apparently no one thought to ask Harding, “So if German spies speak English, shouldn’t you ban English too?”

As for prayer, Harding told the Chamber of Commerce, “I am telling those who insist upon praying in some other language that they are wasting their time, for the good Lord up above is now listening for the voice in English.”

Oh, and that First Amendment business in the Constitution? Welp, according to the governor, freedom of speech is guaranteed only if you speak English.

babel copy
Excerpt from second page of the Babel Proclamation

When the U.S. entered World War I, it mounted a war on German as well as Germany. Almost all American schools stopped teaching German. In Iowa, German books were burned. German-language churches were trashed or torched—and a couple of Danish churches too, because Danish sounded so German. Several women were fined for speaking German on rural party-line telephones. And German speakers were physically attacked by mobs.

Gov. Harding assured Iowa’s German speakers that his language ban was for their own good: it would protect them from the violence that their speech provoked. But the Babel Proclamation had the opposite effect. It became a license to hate. Law or no law, from Nebraska to Texas, people speaking foreign languages were beaten, tarred and feathered, made to kiss the flag, hauled before an inquisition, or hanged in effigy. One pastor was even strung up by an angry mob for speaking German, but police managed to intervene and cut him down before he died.

German words were even banned from English, at least for the duration. Remember when the Congressional cafeteria served “freedom fries” because the French didn’t support America in the First Gulf War? During World War I, patriotic Americans stopped eating sauerkraut, forcing desperate sauerkraut producers to rename their product “liberty cabbage.” A bill in Congress would have stopped the Post Office from delivering mail to any city or street named “Berlin.” And West Point reported an outbreak among the cadets of “Liberty Measles.”

After the War, the Babel Proclamation expired, but America’s war on language continued. Foreign language study never returned to anything like pre-war levels. And an immigration “reform” in 1924 effectively removed foreign languages, and their speakers, from America’s streets.

A second reform in 1965 opened immigration up to nonanglophones once again, but once again, English speakers struck back to defend their embattled native tongue. In 2017, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an engineer who had been speaking Telugu with a colleague, was shot dead in a bar in Olathe, Kansas, by an America-firster shouting “Go back to your own country.” A few years before that, Dallas police were writing tickets for “non-English speaking driver” for drivers who were speaking Spanish even though there’s no law in Texas that says drivers have to speak English.


This renewed war on language is why, almost one hundred years after the Babel Proclamation, a lawyer in New York berated workers at a deli who were speaking Spanish to one another, threatening to call ICE on workers he decided were undocumented just because they weren’t speaking English.

And it’s why a Border Patrol agent stopped and questioned two women for speaking Spanish to each other while buying milk at a gas station in Havre, Montana. When the women asked why they were being detained, the agent replied, “It has to do with you guys speaking Spanish in the store, in a state where it’s predominantly English-speaking.” Plus they were near the border—the Canadian border.

That ICE agent didn’t say, “Montana is the new Iowa.” He didn’t say, “Speak English or I’ll throw you in a detention camp.” Or, “I don’t care if you are American citizens, because speaking Spanish means I can revoke your citizenship if I want to or at least make your lives miserable.” He didn’t have to.

It doesn’t dawn on these defenders of the language that English is also an immigrant tongue in the New World, one that swam ashore, illegal and uninvited, in the 17th century and immediately pushed out all the competition.

America won its war on language long before the Babel Proclamation, and yet American nativists seem bent on reviving the foreign language ban. The English Language Unity Act (HR 997) would make English the official language of American government, raising the groundless fear that government workers might suddenly start speaking some other tongue. And a new immigration proposal would require anyone seeking a visa to be a fluent English speaker before they apply.

These bills won’t reinforce English—newcomers to the United States learn English as quickly as they can. What the laws do instead is send a message to nonanglophones: “We don’t want you. Go back where you came from”—even if where they came from is Des Moines, or Havre, or Olathe.

The Right to Read

This is the post excerpt.

It’s been a bad few weeks for reading.

First a South Carolina police union pressured a high school to drop two books from its summer reading list. The problem? The books depicted cops as violent racists. The union defended its foray into censorship because, “when people don’t like the books their kids are asked to read, they call the police.”

To report what? An assault on complacency? A break in . . . of the mind?

One of the YA novels on the police do-not-read list, The Hate U Give, New York Times best-seller for 38 weeks, was banned in Texas the year before. Whatever happened to, Books don’t hurt people, people hurt people? Oh wait, that’s a different issue.

Then, as if the book police weren’t bad enough, a Detroit federal judge ruled that there is no constitutional right to read. The First Amendment guarantees the freedom to print books, but not the right to learn to read them.

Here’s what happened. A group of Detroit parents sued the state of Michigan for failing to teach their children how to read. The parents argued that Michigan requires their children to go to school. It sets the curriculum and licenses teachers. Plus, in 1999 the state took control of Detroit schools during the city’s financial crisis. In doing so, Michigan became responsible for the success or failure of Detroit’s schoolchildren. It’s true that if some students don’t do well, that doesn’t mean the schools have failed. But when most students don’t learn to read, as in Detroit, then the system isn’t delivering.

Since most of Detroit’s schoolchildren are black, the parents alleged that their children “have been denied access to literacy on account of their race, in violation of their rights under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

In its defense, the state insisted that the existence of a public school system “is no guarantee that the children will become literate.” So what does the state think schools are for?

Actually Judge Stephen J. Murphy, III, agreed with parents that Detroit’s underfunded, overcrowded schools are not doing what they’re supposed to do. They’re not teaching students to read or write or do basic math. That’s bad, really bad, Murphy acknowledged. But it’s not unconstitutional.

In dismissing the case, Murphy said that “access to literacy” is not a fundamental right. Fundamental rights have nothing to do with reading words on a page. They’re things like life, liberty, and guns.

These anti-literacy stories out of South Carolina and Michigan are the opposite of the usual “nobody reads books any more.” Today’s book news is much worse: there’s too much reading. There are two ways to stop it. The South Carolina way: censor the books. Or the Michigan way: don’t teach children how to read.

The South Carolina police think that reading is child endangerment. First kids can’t go to the pizza joint because they’ll be trafficked by the liberal elites. Now the library isn’t safe for them either. And in Detroit? In Detroit schools no longer have to teach children to read, so the police won’t have to worry about them reading books that expose police brutality. Or reading the Constitution, the one document that the founders might have wanted everyone to read.