top of page
  • Writer's pictureDusty Weis

Lead Balloon Ep. 40 - In Event of Moon Disaster: The Greatest Speech Never Given

Lost for 30 years in the Nixon archives, today it is hailed as a work of rhetorical and poetic genius.


It has been called “The Greatest Speech Never Given.”


Drafted as a contingency plan for President Richard Nixon on the occasion of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the memo entitled "In Event of Moon Disaster" is inarguably a better piece of writing than any of the presidential remarks actually delivered on that day.


Penned by White House speechwriter William Safire, today it is hailed as a work of rhetorical and poetic genius. It has inspired major Hollywood features, played a central role in moon landing anniversary observances, and even been used as a tool to educate information consumers on the dangers posed by deepfake technology.

Rescue was not an option.
Rescue was not an option.

And yet from July 20, 1969 until its rediscovery in 1999, this striking piece of American history remained buried in obscurity, its brilliance unrecognized among the millions of pages of documents archived from the Nixon administration.


So in this episode of the Lead Balloon podcast, we will track the path of the "Greatest Speech Never Given," from William Safire's desk, to Nixon's Chief of Staff, to its disappearance from and re-emergence in the national discourse.


Dwight Chapin, who served as Deputy Assistant to President Nixon and helped plan the Public Relations strategy for the moon landing, will tell us more about his colleague Bill Safire, and how they positioned the moon landing from a strategic communication context.


Joe Lopez, the Vice President of Marketing and Communications for the Richard Nixon Foundation, will discuss the memo's rediscovery and display in the Nixon Presidential Library.


And Francesca Panetta and Halsey Burgund, co-directors of the viral Emmy-winning short film “In Event of Moon Disaster,” will discuss their decision to reimagine the remarks by using deepfake technology to synthesize a video of Richard Nixon actually delivering the momentous speech.



Transcript:


Dusty Weis:

It has been called "The Greatest Speech Never Given." On July 20th, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to walk on the moon, the culmination of decades of pioneering US space exploration and a successful Apollo 11 moon landing. It was a triumphant moment for America, for human progress and for science, but it could just as easily have ended in tragedy.


Joe Lopez:

In the case of this disaster, in the case that Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were stranded on the moon, weren't able to make it back up to the command module where Michael Collins is waiting there to ultimately, take them home.


Dusty Weis:

Joe Lopez is the vice president of marketing and communications for the Richard Nixon Foundation, which has in its presidential library collection a printed set of remarks that was never delivered on that fateful day, entitled "In Event of Moon Disaster." Drafted by White House speech writer William Safire, the memo is inarguably a better piece of writing than any of the presidential remarks given that day. But Dwight Chapin, who served as deputy assistant to President Nixon and helped plan the public relations strategy for the moon landing, says the Safire memo was lost from the record for 30 years.


Dwight Chapin:

That folder stayed right in Bob's little packet, and to my knowledge, it never left that folder. It was held to a very tight group of people.


Dusty Weis:

This striking piece of rhetorical history remained buried in obscurity, its brilliance, unrecognized and uncelebrated until its rediscovery in the archives in 1999. Since then, it has played a pivotal part in moon landing anniversary observances, a starring role in major Hollywood features, and even been used as a tool to educate information consumers on the dangers posed by deepfakes.


So in this episode, we'll take a deep dive on The Greatest Speech Never Given to learn more about how it was written, why its message is so enduring, and what we can still learn today from the people who framed the narrative for humankind's first steps on the moon 54 years ago.


Neil Armstrong:

That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.


Dusty Weis:

I'm Dusty Weis from Podcamp Media. This is Lead Balloon, a podcast about compelling tales from the world of PR marketing and branding told by the well-meaning communications professionals who lived them. Thanks for tuning in. This is exactly the story that I love to tell on Lead Balloon, examining a piece of strategic communication history and picking out the parts of the story that maybe haven't been told, hearing it from the people who were there, parsing the lessons that they learned, all so that that we can come away as better communicators. If that's your thing. Make sure you follow this show on your favorite app. Check out Podcamp Media on LinkedIn or tell a friend or colleague who gets as excited about this stuff as we do.


So I first read about this speech, "In Event of Moon Disaster" many years ago on Randall Munroe's brilliant website, XKCD. It captured my imagination then, so I'm so excited to share this episode with you now. But before we go any further into its background, I'd like you to just listen to these words as penned by William Safire two days before the moon landing in 1969, to be read to the world in the event that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were stranded on the moon.

"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 lives 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 the nation. They will be mourned by the people of the world, and 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 the stars 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."
The Safire Memo

That is a heck of a piece of writing. And, unfortunately, its author, Nixon speech writer Bill Safire, passed away in 2009. But we were lucky enough to get in touch with Safire's friend and colleague from the Nixon administration, Dwight Chapin.


Dwight Chapin:

Bill Safire was a magnificent man.


Dusty Weis:

Chapin served as deputy assistant to President Nixon. His post White House career included stints at United Airlines and as managing director for the international public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton. His memoir, The President's Man, explores his personal and professional relationship with members of the Nixon administration, including Bill Safire. And Dwight was more than happy to fill me in on Bill's background.


Dwight Chapin:

He'd gone to Syracuse. He went to work for one of the great public relations men of all time, Tex McCrary.


Dusty Weis:

A force in the world of media and PR alike, McCrary is credited with popularizing the talk show genre for television and radio. He designed the format for the New York Daily Mirror while on his honeymoon. He played a major role in convincing Dwight Eisenhower to run for president, and also among his mentees and proteges, another familiar name, Barbara Walters. Pedigree like that starts to give you an idea where Bill Safire built up his speech writing chops.


Dwight Chapin:

Tex is the one that taught Bill Safire basic public relations, and Bill took that and built a firm. He had a public relations firm. He lived in New York City. How that introduction came about, I'm not quite certain, but Bill got into the mainstream of the Nixon campaign process.


Dusty Weis:

A moderate liberal who would later go on to lead a Pulitzer Prize-winning career as a New York Times columnist, Chapin says Bill Safire was nonetheless invited to join the conservative Nixon administration, which in addition to conservative stalwarts like Pat Buchanan and Roger Ailes, included other prominent liberals like Ray Price and Len Garment.


Dwight Chapin:

Of the leading thinkers of our administration was truly Bill Safire. He had an ability to condense words and to put them into frameworks that the president loved. And you saw that later in his career when he goes on to the New York Times and becomes one of the top columnists. I mean, yes, he was a Republican, but his viewpoints and how he presented things had a real breadth of all spectrums of political parties and thought. Bill was a consummate idea man. I can remember him one time giving me a piece of advice. He said, "Dwight, whenever you go into somebody's office, don't spend time looking at them. Look at everything in their office, and it will tell you more about them than they will." And I always thought that's really an intriguing idea.


Dusty Weis:

So in 1969, the year that Nixon took office, the administration had their hands full. The Vietnam War was at its bloody peak. The social upheaval of the civil rights era was still afoot, and relations with Russia and China were at a frosty stalemate. Amid all this, Chapin says that the space race provided America with something to be optimistic about, but also a fine public relations line for the Nixon administration to walk.


Dwight Chapin:

Well, the concept of putting a man on the moon was a visionary statement made by Jack Kennedy.


President John Kennedy:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other thing, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.


Dwight Chapin:

And that set the stage. And the thing that we were up against was everybody knew that Kennedy had said that, and it was how do we enter stage right, if you will, without bumping into the legacy of President Kennedy and looking like we were trying to preempt what was rightfully his but to do it in a way that was what we would call presidential? And how do we do this? How do we execute this?


Dusty Weis:

You didn't want to be seen as usurping Kennedy's legacy. You wanted to be seen as completing the job that he started.


Dwight Chapin:

Absolutely. And you have to understand that both these men, most people don't know this, were actually very good friends. And Nixon's intent was not to shove himself ahead of President Kennedy on this.


Dusty Weis:

So pretty much right away after Nixon's inauguration, the new administration began planning the PR strategy for the moon landing in July.


Dwight Chapin:

We set up a group that was chaired by Peter Flanigan who was an assistant to the president. The participants in that meeting were Peter, Bill Safire, myself, I believe Pat Buchanan came in there periodically, Ray Price, who was a speech writer. And what we did is brought in one of the great guys of all time, astronaut Frank Borman. Frank was assigned to the White House by NASA. He had made a trip around the moon in December of '68 before Nixon was president.


Dusty Weis:

Borman was a former Air Force fighter pilot and a long time astronaut dating back to the Gemini program. Having him as NASA's official liaison to the White House provided an important element of been-there-done-that to their com strategy for the event. Borman's flight on Apollo 8 was the first human space flight to reach and orbit the moon, making him one of the first three humans to witness the earth rise over the lunar horizon. Taken by Borman's crewmate, William Anders, the famous earth rise photo is another icon of the Apollo program. Yes, it hung on my childhood bedroom wall and a lot of other kids as well, but Borman gave a copy as a gift to President Nixon.


Dwight Chapin:

And that picture hung in the Oval Office the whole time that President Nixon was in office. But Frank had developed a tremendous rapport with Nixon and with the rest of us on the staff. So we used Frank as our lead. One of the first meetings that I recall was, what are we going to leave on the moon? I mean, this was probably one of the most historic events of the era, and what were we going to put up there? We started kibitzing about this plaque. What would the words on the plaque be? What would be the right tone, the right positioning for the United States of America? And we spent a lot of time talking about that.


Dusty Weis:

Well, because on the one hand, by reaching the moon before Russia, you were essentially crossing the finish line and winning the race. And so it would not have been inappropriate per se, to include a little bit of gloating on that plan.


Dwight Chapin:

Yes.


Dusty Weis:

Instead you struck what I think could safely be interpreted as poetry. The famous line, "We came in peace for all mankind."


Dwight Chapin:

Yes.


Dusty Weis:

Which was left at that site of the lunar landing.


Dwight Chapin:

Yes. It was you couldn't say, "Bravo. We won!"


Dusty Weis:

Instead, the plaque inscription that they workshopped together became another icon of the space program and remains today at the site of humankind's historic first steps on the moon.


Neil Armstrong:

Two men from the planet Earth, first set foot upon the moon, July, 1969, AD. We came in peace for all mankind. It has the crew members signatures and the signature of the President of the United States.


Dwight Chapin:

That evolved. I mean that wasn't like the light bulb goes on, and we all knew it that minute.


Dusty Weis:

It's not like somebody wrote it on the whiteboard and you said, "That's great. Let's take lunch."


Dwight Chapin:

Right, exactly. So it took us a while to get there, and there were three or four different versions of it. I'm sure they're out at the Nixon Library. And then they were advanced to the president. While we were doing the legwork and everything, he was making the decision on it.


Dusty Weis:

But as the July 20th date of the moon landing approached, and the plans fell into place, Chapin says the historic weight of what was about to happen began to settle in around him and his colleagues.


Dwight Chapin:

We're dealing with two things. We're dealing with this magnificent thing that's going to happen, but we have also got to have in the back of our minds the consequences if something goes wrong. The focus, as I recall, was very much on the positive. The negative was there, but we're Americans, and we have this team of phenomenal NASA people. I would say that if you broke it into percentages, maybe, maybe somewhere in the 8% or 9% range was if this happens, we will be prepared. But we were very optimistic.


Dusty Weis:

True to his charge as the only astronaut in the room, however, Frank Borman had a firm understanding of the risks involved in landing the first people on the moon. And in a 1999 interview with Tim Russert on "Meet the Press, Bill Safire himself detailed the rather blunt phone call that he received.


William Safire:

I remember when Frank Borman, who was the astronaut who acted as a liaison at the White House, called me up and said, "You're working on this moonshot. You want to consider a alternative posture for the President in the event of mishaps." And that was, as far as I was concerned, gobbly-gook, and I didn't get it until he added, and I can hear him now, "Like what to do for the widows?" Because at that time, the most important, the most dangerous part of the moon mission was to get that lunar module back up into orbit around the moon and to join the command ship. But if they couldn't, and it was a good risk that they couldn't, then they would have to be abandoned on the moon, left to die there. And mission control would then have to, to use their euphemism, close down communication, and the men would have to either starve to death or commit suicide. And so we prepared for that with a speech that I wrote, and the president was ready to give that.


Dwight Chapin:

Bill understood the historical significance of it, the positioning of it, and he understood the drama and the consequences if something went wrong.


Joe Lopez:

It's drafted July 18th, 1969, so it's just days before. So this was in a sense a last minute speech.


Dusty Weis:

Joe Lopez is the vice president to marketing and communications for the Richard Nixon Foundation in the Presidential Archives of which the speech was discovered in 1999.


Joe Lopez:

Another fascinating part of this is at the end of the document, he lays out what should happen prior to the President giving the statement; that he would telephone each of their wives, and it even says widows to be. So he would telephone each of them to let them know personally, and then deliver the message to the entire world that were watching that night. And then they would perform a procedure that was similar to what's happened with a burial at sea. I don't know that the plans went on beyond this, but it's a lot of detail in just a page and a half here. And one of the great mysteries of history will be what revisions or edits President Nixon would've had to this speech. All of his speech writers knew that when it reached the President, it wasn't in its final form. And then luckily in the archives, we have a lot of annotations on draft speeches that he actually delivered. This one doesn't have any of those annotations, but I wonder what edits he would've made to the speech or what approach he would've given to it.


Dusty Weis:

Instead, Dwight Chapin says that after pounding out that memo on a typewriter, Safire would've taken it directly to Nixon's chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, who would've had it on the day of the moon landing.


Dwight Chapin:

That folder stayed right in Bob's little packet. He had a leather folder that he always carried around for taking notes and so forth. And to my knowledge, it never left that folder. When Bob reviewed that folder with Nixon, I don't know. My intuition on this would be Bob, at some juncture prior to the event taking place, would have informed President Nixon that he had this, and if it was needed, he would give it to him.


Dusty Weis:

So we don't know if anybody other than Bob Haldeman ever saw that speech until 1999.


Dwight Chapin:

Right.


Dusty Weis:

Bill Safire, Bob Haldeman, and maybe President Nixon.


Dwight Chapin:

Yeah, and probably Peter Flanigan.


Dusty Weis:

Okay.


Dwight Chapin:

It probably was covered with Frank in terms of appropriateness. I mean, you're dealing with NASA. You're dealing with families. You're dealing with national heartbreak. You've got lots of elements that instantaneously come into play when something like that would go south on you. So the people that needed to know knew. I'm not sure, very honestly, that Ron Ziegler ever saw it. He was press secretary. I know I never saw it. It was held to a very tight group of people.


Dusty Weis:

For his part, Chapin remembers spending the day of the moon landing glued to a TV set like just about every other person in America. Well, maybe not just like everyone else.


Dwight Chapin:

I spent the whole day at the White House 85%-90% of the day in the cabinet room. We had a television installed by the White House Communications Agencies, and at that time in history, there was not a television in the cabinet room. And we sat there, and we watched all day long. I received phone calls from the president who was upstairs or wherever he happened to be, asking about various steps in what was going on. Roger Ailes, who was in charge of all of the television production, was sitting in the cabinet room with us. Frank Borman was bouncing in and out of there.


Dusty Weis:

And President Nixon himself kept tabs from his residence within the White House with periodic updates from Frank Borman. At about 1:45 in the afternoon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin began their decent to the moon's surface, separating the Eagle Lander from the Columbia command module where astronaut Michael Collins would wait for them to return for the flight home. And it took more than two hours for Armstrong to pilot the lander to the moon's surface.


Neil Armstrong:

Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.


Dusty Weis:

And when the momentous occasion arrived at 10:56 PM Eastern time-


Neil Armstrong:

That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.


NASA Radio Chatter:

Oh, that looks beautiful from up here.


Dusty Weis:

I don't need to tell you that it was was the most watched moment in human history at that point, with an estimated TV viewership of 650 million people worldwide. The moon landing would hold that title until the wedding of Lady Diana and Prince Charles in 1981. Following Armstrong's first steps, he and Buzz Aldrin began the process of making camp on the moon's surface, positioning cameras, unveiling the American flag, and reading that plaque that Chapin Safire and their colleagues had labored over. And then, just an hour after the beginning of humanity's first walk on the moon, the rest of the White House's PR plan for the event unfurled as President Nixon himself joined the TV broadcast from the Oval Office for what Joe Lopez from the Nixon Foundation jokingly refers to as the longest long distance phone call in human history.


NASA Radio Chatter:

Neil and Buzz, the president of the United States is in his office now and would like to say a few words to you. Over.


Neil Armstrong:

That would be an honor.


NASA Radio Chatter:

Go ahead, Mr. President. This is Houston out.


President Richard Nixon:

Hello, Neil and Buzz. I'm talking to you by telephone from the Oval Room in the White House.


Joe Lopez:

I mean, that that's an amazing feat in itself too; the fact that he was able to pick up the telephone in the Oval Office, and their split screen technology where you would see President Nixon in the Oval Office, and you could see Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.


President Richard Nixon:

Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man's world, and as you talk to us from the sea of tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to earth. For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this earth are truly one, one in their pride in what you have done and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth.


Dusty Weis:

It was a decent set of remarks. You can tell that it touched on some of the same themes as the moon disaster speech, but it doesn't quite have the same poetry, the same gravitas as the Safire memo. A few days later, after the astronauts had successfully lifted from the moon's surface, rendezvoused with their command module, traveled 240,000 miles and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, Nixon was there to greet them on the deck of the USS Hornet, sort of. That PR opportunity was hampered somewhat by the fact that the astronauts were required to quarantine for 21 days because of worries about what sorts of bacteria they might bring back from the moon. And so Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins were housed in a shiny aluminum airstream camper through the window of which they spoke with the President.


President Richard Nixon:

Neil, Buzz, and Mike, I want you to know that I think I'm the luckiest man in the world.


Dusty Weis:

Nonetheless, President Nixon was visibly giddy. He was personable and even downright relatable as he welcomed the heroes back to the planet's surface.


President Richard Nixon:

But most important, I had a telephone call yesterday. The call wasn't incidentally as great as the one I made to you fellows on the moon. I made that collect incidentally, in case you didn't know. When I called three of the greatest ladies and most courageous ladies in the whole world today, you're alive. I bring their love and their congratulations.


Dwight Chapin:

Once the men were safely down, we started a tour that went around the world, a goodwill tour designed to enhance the image of the United States using this national accomplishment; not a Nixon accomplishment, but a national accomplishment.


Dusty Weis:

Nixon aid, Dwight Chapin says that as the team maximized PR exposure from the moon landing, all the uncertainty of the days leading up to the event itself just faded into the grind. And Bill Safire, author of the "Greatest Speech Never Given," quickly had other projects to occupy his attention.


Dwight Chapin:

Bill was the type of man that put his power of using words to the ultimate test, but then once he had written it, it would've gone into Haldeman's folder, and I'm not sure that Bill would've lingered over it. It was there to be used if an emergency came about.


Dusty Weis:

And even as an extraordinary specimen of contemporary speech writing, like all contingency plans, the Safire Memo disappeared into the footnotes of history until its rediscovery 30 years later.


Joe Lopez:

And imagine thumbing through pages and coming across a page titled, "IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER" in all caps.


Dusty Weis:

So coming up after the break, how the Safire memo was rediscovered, how it finally got the recognition it deserves all these decades later, and how a group of artists and technologists at MIT decided to give it new life to deliver a dire warning to humanity.


Francesca Panetta:

You would've known that this was a great speech and to have it played out, but with an educational purpose with those astronauts not having been killed on the moon, I think you would love to see that.


Dusty Weis:

All that is coming up in a minute here on Lead Balloon.


This is Lead Balloon, and I'm Dusty Weis. My wife, Cecilia and I, we recently dug in and watched a wonderful show on Apple TV called "For All Mankind," which imagines an alternative history in which Russia landed people on the moon before the US did. As two huge nerds exploring the cascading changes this would've made in the decades that followed, well, it was a lot of fun for us. But there's also a scene in season one of "For All Mankind" that imagines a space travel disaster on the moon and features some by now familiar remarks delivered by a fictionalized version of President Nixon.


Fictional Richard Nixon:

Ancient times, I think, in ancient times, men looked at stars 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.


Dusty Weis:

And it was of course, at that point to the show where I basically started jumping up and down on the couch and shouting at my poor wife, "That's the speech. That's a real speech," taking us both entirely out of that powerful moment. But she's used to that sort of behavior from me and loves me anyway, and patiently listened as I mansplained the "In Event Of Moon Disaster" speech to her. Point being, this piece of rhetorical history drafted by Bill Safire as an Apollo 11 contingency plan has become very well known and admired since its re-discovery in 1999. But Joe Lopez, the vice president of marketing and communications for the Richard Nixon Foundation says it's a stroke of pure luck that the Safire Memo ever even saw the light of day.


Joe Lopez:

This document is one of 46 million pages of documents that disappeared into history. It didn't disappear, it went into our national archives, the Nixon Presidential Archives, 46 million pages of documents, 3,700 hours of recorded presidential conversations, hundreds of thousands of photographs, hours and hours of film... A reporter for the LA Times named James Mann, was doing research for a book about President Nixon's opening to China. That was his beat for the LA Times was China.


And so he was doing research for this book in the Nixon Archives in College Park, Maryland at the time, and he came across this memo. He wasn't looking for it. He just found it. And imagine from his perspective, thumbing through pages and coming across a page titled "IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER" in all caps.


Dusty Weis:

Well, I got to tell you, Joe, I've done archival research before as a journalist, and it's probably one of the most mind-numbingly boring things that you can imagine. And so to come across something like that, it must have knocked his socks off.


Joe Lopez:

I mean, what a find. It's got to go in the Hall of Fame of great needles-in-the-haystack found in presidential archives. Even just a few years ago, he was interviewed for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing about what it was like to find that memo, and he said it still brings tears to his eyes reading it.


Dusty Weis:

The timing of Mann's discovery was fortuitous. In 1999, the US was observing the 30th anniversary of the moon landing. And so Bill Safire, who had worked for the New York Times as a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist following the Watergate scandal and Nixon's resignation in 1974, finally got some of the recognition he deserved for the, "In Event of Moon Disaster" speech. Tim Russert lauded him for it in that earnest "Meet The Press" interview.


William Safire:

And of course, the module made it. And for 17 years after that, we operated on the assumption that there could be nothing wrong in the space program. And then of course, until the Challenger exploded on television in front of everybody, we realized what enormous risks that were being run by these astronauts. They laid their lives on the line every time.


Joe Lopez:

But I don't know that it really got much attention beyond that at the time until the internet came along and made this document accessible to the masses.


Dusty Weis:

How do you think Bill Safire felt about this speech? Because this is a guy that was probably grinding out four or five momentous speeches a week at his apex. Do you think that this is one that he thought about as among his best, or is this just another draft that he pounded out and then never really came back to?


Joe Lopez:

I don't know. I would think that the speeches that probably stuck with Bill Safire were the ones that President Nixon actually delivered. Imagine how many drafts he had written that were tossed out or what have you. So it must have been amazing for him in 1999 to go back and read this draft speech and get the notoriety that he deserved for it. Because he probably thought, "I spent all this time and effort writing a beautifully poetic and incredible speech that will never be read and never be seen again." So I'm happy for him that he was able to actually see the day that it was uncovered. It's funny, every few years it seems to be, there's a major story written about this memo, this document, this speech that was never delivered, even though there's nothing new about it. We've known about it for the last 20 years, but every few years it seems to get a nice bump of attention.


Dusty Weis:

Perhaps most notably, one of these recent bumps in attention came courtesy of a viral MIT project and installation about artificial intelligence. Francesca Panetta and Halsey Burgund were co-directors of the short film at the heart of the 2019 project, which used an emerging AI technology to simulate a version of Richard Nixon actually giving "The Greatest Speech Never Given."


Francesca Panetta:

Deepfakes use artificial intelligence to manipulate either the voice or the visuals of videos and audio to make people say or do things that they never did.


Halsey Burgund:

And then there's this memo that actually exists that is incredibly beautiful, that is a part of a seminal moment in the history of the world and history of humanity really, and it never was said. So how fascinating would it be to not only use this as a way of helping teach the public, if you will, make them aware about the power of this technology, but also thinking about how things could have gone differently. It was a moment of clarity for us when we thought about bringing those two things together. And it felt right.


Francesca Panetta:

When we first made this project, we took it to the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam, and we built a 1960s living room setting, and we played this video on an old TV set. And it was really interesting watching audience members come by and see this video. To be honest, some of them couldn't even believe that it was a fake. And we had to be really careful about the messaging around the project, both as an installation, and then when we later put it up online as a website. That our messaging was very direct and said, "This is a deepfake, and we're doing this to try and show you what's possible."


We had people watch it repeatedly getting nearer and nearer to the TV, watching the lips, trying to see if they were out of sync, trying to see if they could see any gaps around the mouth area that they could detect. It became a game for people trying to see if they could spot the deepfake, which is pretty hard. And I think there are a couple of reasons why emotionally it really resonates when audiences watch this film. One is Bill Safire's incredible writing, and there's no way our film would've been anywhere near as powerful if we didn't have him as our writer for this project. But I think the other is that very real possibility that this could have happened. It's very confronting to have the odds of that really, really shown to you as a possibility, which is not something that we contemplate.


Walter Cronkite:

So it is now that there is time, if only briefly in this busy morning, to think of those three men and the burdens and the hopes that they carry on behalf of all mankind.


Halsey Burgund:

Fran and I are artists, and we wanted to create an entire alternative history, and we do a lot of work to lead up to the need for this speech to be delivered. And starting with-


NASA Radio Chatter:

Lift off. We have a lift off. 32 minutes-


Halsey Burgund:

Three, two, one, blast off. All this stuff going through space, getting to the moon, we do it very, very quickly. But the point being that it is not just this speech coming out of nowhere. We've done a lot of work to try to create a world, and then we hope that our audience will take that world, and run with it in their head, and think about the implications of how easily this could have been the case, and what would've indeed happened to the history of humanity had this one thing changed.


NASA Radio Chatter:

Lost data flight.


Dusty Weis:

Well, it'd be an understatement to say that you made a splash with the project. You were honored with an Emmy. You went viral on the internet and generated perhaps the biggest audience yet for this forgotten piece of remarkable speech writing. But sadly, the one person who wasn't able to see this project come to fruition was Bill Safire himself. He passed away in 2009, and so Fran and Halsey, I've got to ask, what do you think he would make of it?


Francesca Panetta:

Oh, I think he would like it. I think he was a fantastic writer, and he would've known that this was a great speech, and to have it played out, but with an educational purpose with those astronauts not having been killed on the moon, I think he would love to see that.


Halsey Burgund:

It still gives me the chills hearing it, even reading it, but more listening to it, just hearing the sounds.


Dusty Weis:

What's your favorite part?


Halsey Burgund:

Oh gosh, that's a tough one, isn't it? I always think of epic men of flesh and blood. I don't know. There's something... And the whole notion of these men sacrificed for the benefit of humanity, and we're going to keep on going, and we're going to keep on trying to discover things. It's just such... The whole thing is so wonderful. It's really hard to say what the best part is.


Dusty Weis:

The whole thing is an appropriate answer to what's your favorite part?


Francesca Panetta:

I mean, we had to make some trailer videos to promote our film, and it was really hard because how do you pick the best sentences from that speech when it's all so wonderful?


Deepfake Richard Nixon:

Good evening my fellow Americans. Fates 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.


Dusty Weis:

For his part, Joe Lopez from the Nixon Foundation feels the same affection for the Safire memo as Fran and Halsey, and though he never got to meet him, a kinship for Bill Safire.


Joe Lopez:

I mean, imagine being in his shoes. You've written speeches. I've written remarks and speeches before. Having to sit and write this speech, where would you start with it?


Dusty Weis:

I would start at my desk with a bottle of scotch.


Joe Lopez:

Right, exactly. I don't know that that was the route that he took, but man, what a speech. I believe this is the only draft that exists. So I don't know how many iterations he went through. Looking at the timeline here, he didn't have much time to put this together. So you think he just did a marvelous job for the timeframe.


Dusty Weis:

When I first reached out to you about having this discussion, you actually emailed me back and said that just by pure coincidence, you had just been rereading over this memo that same morning. So as one strategic communicator to another, what is it that you personally love about this piece of writing?


Joe Lopez:

I feel inspired by it, to be honest with you.


Deepfake Richard Nixon:

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most notable search for truth and understanding. They will be mourned by their families and friends. They will be mourned by their nation.


Joe Lopez:

But a line that really sticks out to me, "They will be mourned by a mother earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown."


Deepfake Richard Nixon:

Into the unknown.


Joe Lopez:

It's inspiring to read it.


Deepfake Richard Nixon:

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.


Joe Lopez:

It's poetic the way he writes it.


Dusty Weis:

Oh, it's pure poetry.


Deepfake Richard Nixon:

In ancient days, men looked at stars 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 at 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. Goodnight.


Joe Lopez:

Some corner of another world that is forever mankind.


Dusty Weis:

Which is just an incredible... And it gives me goosebumps just hearing it right now, this notion that if Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had been stranded on the moon, that every time somebody looked up at the moon from that point in history forward, they would be looking up at an enduring monument to the sacrifice that they made for human progress.


Joe Lopez:

Absolutely. Every kid looks up at the moon at night and thinks about what is it like up there? What is up there? And to know that man has been there, we've been to the moon. It's been a long time. We haven't been to the moon since the Nixon administration, and I know there are plans to get back there. But what if they would've been stranded? Would we have gone back, and what would've that looked like? There would be two burial sites on the moon. I mean, thank God we didn't get to that point, but it's a tremendous piece of writing. I think if President Nixon would've had to deliver this speech, it probably would've went down as one of the most famous speeches ever delivered. Thankfully, he didn't have to do that.


Dwight Chapin:

I'm sure that deep down in his soul, the President said some prayers that night that, "Thank God I didn't have to go a different direction on this."


Dusty Weis:

Dwight Chapin, Nixon's White House deputy assistant says he's glad to see speech writer Bill Safire are getting his due. He understands why so many are enamored with the speech, though he's a little bemused by all the buzz that it's caused.


Dwight Chapin:

I think people were surprised that that document existed. But if one stopped and thought about it, I mean, it was a common sense thing to have done. We were a very efficient organization. You can't judge us by the consequences of how Watergate was handled. The Nixon White House was really, truly like a very fine Swiss watch on most things. I mean, there's no question they blew it on Watergate, but you look at the unfoldment of China or any number of different events, we had a procedure, and we had it working right, and this was part of that.


Dusty Weis:

I should also add, Mr. Chapin, that if there is a recurring theme on this podcast, it is that I detest bad cliches in the media and public relations; hate them. And if I were to make a top 10 list of those cliches, somewhere in that list would be the application of the suffix -gate to any new scandal as it breaks, whether we're talking about Pizzagate, whether we're talking about Travelgate. We even did an episode of this show about Bridgegate, the scandal that befell New Jersey Governor Chris Christie over politically motivated lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.


Now, you note in your book, "The President's Man" that Bill Safire, the man that we've spent much of this episode lauding for his rhetorical genius is among the first writers in American popular culture to popularize the scandalgate cliche. Why'd he go and do that to us, sir?


Dwight Chapin:

I don't know. But he would be writing balloongate tonight. Bill had a phenomenal sense of humor, and I think lots of the use of that -gate thing was to ridicule some of that Watergate stuff. I don't know exactly how to answer your question other than to say if he were alive today, he would be writing a column on balloongate.


Dusty Weis:

I think you're certainly right that he would. Well, Mr. Dwight Chapin, deputy assistant to President Richard Nixon all those years ago, and author of the book, "The President's Man: the Memoirs of Nixon's Trusted Aid," this has been an incredible conversation, a great learning opportunity for me, and I thank you so much for joining us on this episode of Lead Balloon.


Dwight Chapin:

Well, Dusty it's been terrific. I've enjoyed it, and God willing, we're going to put a lot of men on the moon, and everything's going to go safely in the years ahead.


Dusty Weis:

And then on to Mars.


Dwight Chapin:

Yes, Mars.


Dusty Weis:

I was promised Mars sometime in my lifetime.


Dwight Chapin:

It'll happen.


Dusty Weis:

Dwight Chapin and I, by the way, we actually spoke at length about the Watergate scandal campaigning for Nixon, his regrets. He actually served nine months in Lompoc after he was convicted of lying to the grand jury. But Dwight maintains his innocence and stands by Nixon. That is an interesting conversation in its own right, and so we'll be releasing that down the line here as a bonus episode.


Thanks are due as well to Joe Lopez, vice president of marketing and communications for the Richard Nixon Foundation for making the connection with Dwight and for sharing his insights as well. And thank you to Francesca Panetta and Halsey Burgund, the co-directors of the MIT "In Event of Moon Disaster" Project, which you'll recall was intended as a warning against the misinformation threat posed by deepfake technology. In the four years since that project. They tell me that the deepfakes have become much, much more convincing and much, much easier to make, which is both amazing and terrifying. So we are working on a full-blown episode with Fran and Halsey about the public information implications of deepfakes, and you're going to want to make sure that you're subscribed to Lead Balloon in your favorite podcast app, so you can hear that one when it drops.


An exciting piece of news about the show, we recently learned that we were nominated for Best Business Podcast in the podcast Academy Awards. We're going to be walking the red carpet in Las Vegas. And the company that we're keeping there? Well, we're up against submissions from Wondery, Fast Company, Atlassian and Pacific Content, Pushkin Industries. Basically, what I'm saying is it's a whole bunch of powerhouses in the podcasting world with big budgets and huge production teams, and then us; David in a mosh pit of Goliaths once again, so fingers crossed, because Lead Balloon is produced by little old Podcamp Media where we provide branded podcast production services for businesses.


Our podcast studios are located not in New York or LA but in the heart of beautiful downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and we work with brands all over North America. PodcampMedia.com. Music for this episode by Cast of Characters, Phil Moore, Lincoln Davis, Lou Lyon, Moments, Sweet Sammy, Sam Barsh, Chelsea McGough, Memory Theory, and the Europa Proto Harmonic Symphony Orchestra. Fact checking by Beatrice Lawrence and no big budget production team behind this one. The rest was just me, producer, host, editor, and writer.


So until the next time, folks, thanks for listening. I'm Dusty Weis.

180 views0 comments

Commenti


bottom of page