Neil Armstrong: An 'Exemplary Life'

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James Fallows of The Atlantic met Neil Armstrong at a gathering of some of America's greatest aviators and astronauts, and even in that crowd, Armstrong stood out. Saturday, the astronaut's family announced he had died at the age of 82. Guest host Laura Sullivan speaks with Fallows about Armstrong's legacy.


James Fallows of The Atlantic joins us as he does most Saturdays. Jim, let me get your thoughts on the passing of Neil Armstrong.

JAMES FALLOWS: I had the chance to meet him only once. This was almost 10 years ago, the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers flight in Kitty Hawk. And there was every icon of aviation you could imagine there, from a Chuck Yeager or two, then serving President Bush to John Travolta, but there was a special standing for Neil Armstrong. And I think that reflected the fact not simply had he been part of this historic achievement for humanity, but also the rest of his life had been so exemplary too.

Before that, he had been a test pilot and a combat pilot and an engineer and a professor. And after his achievement in the Apollo program, he went on to have this exemplary life of avoiding political complications, of being very careful about the kind of business enterprises he was involved in. He had been a small-town person from Ohio. So I think everything that American's liked to think about themselves was reflected in the person of this man.

SULLIVAN: Obviously, the country just experienced an exhilarating moment with the landing of the Mars Curiosity. Of course, that was an unmanned mission. But it just couldn't match the feeling of the moon landing. I mean, Neil Armstrong just seems like the kind of hero that we just might not see again for a long time.

FALLOWS: That kind of heroism requires the sort of national effort, of course, that President Kennedy had kicked off less than a decade before in saying that we would land a man on the moon and bring him back safely. I think the national excitement about the control room for this Curiosity landing on Mars was some glimpse of the sense of national possibility that people felt back in the 1960s during the space declaration where you saw in that control room lots of ordinary-seeming Americans from a variety of backgrounds who were trying their best for this one pooled effort to do something that hadn't been done before.

And I think that regardless of party, there is a kind of national desire for achievement and greatness and success and pushing frontiers that could be retapped.

SULLIVAN: Hmm. Jim, let's turn now to some other news just for a minute. Republicans are converging on Tampa, Florida, right now for their national convention. And my question is - Romney's nomination is a foregone conclusion. The other candidates usually hand over their delegates to the presumptive nominee. What's the purpose of a convention now? Is this really a much ado about nothing?

FALLOWS: In a sense, these gatherings have outlived their natural purpose. In days of yore, the nominations sometimes weren't decided until the conventions. There will be deals made and all the rest. That doesn't happen now. I think they still do matter, though, for a couple of reasons. One is it's the only time when people from one party, from every part of the country get together and there is still some difference in seeing people face-to-face, even if it's a crowd of tens of thousands.

Sometimes there are moments that change political identity and make political stars. It was eight years ago that Barack Obama, then just a candidate for Senate, made his historic speech at the Boston convention for Democrats. And four years ago, Sarah Palin introduced herself with her speech. And finally, this really is the time when the serious part of the presidential campaign season begins. Each party has a chance to present itself, its candidate. And so starting now, we're in for the serious part of the campaign.

SULLIVAN: James Fallows is national correspondent with The Atlantic. And you can read his blog at And his latest book is "China Airborne." Jim, thanks so much.

FALLOWS: My pleasure, Laura.

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