Last night in Tucson, the nation watched as President Obama took the stage at what had been billed as a “memorial service” for the victims of the horrible murders of government officials and innocent bystanders only a few days earlier. Aside from scripture readings by members of Obama’s cabinet, the event seemed to bear a stronger resemblance to a political pep rally. For those expecting a somber and reflective memorial, the raucous cheering of the crowd was a painful distraction.
Despite the stadium atmosphere, right down to the free tee-shirts distributed to the crowd, Obama frowned and winced as some of his supporters shouted “WE LOVE YOU!” As one who likes to compare himself to the 16th president, we can easily imagine Obama thinking to himself, “was this how it was for Lincoln at Gettysburg?” Fortunately, the President’s grave demeanor eventually quieted the crowd and allowed us to focus on his words.
In the speech itself, phrases such as “expand our moral imaginations” and “widen the circle of our concern” were strange off-notes in an otherwise polished delivery. Responding to the media firestorm of speculation on the causes of the tragedy, the President rose to the occasion and gently scolded members of his party for trying to place the blame on politics, while at the same time calling for unity and healing:
The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better. To be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors and coworkers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy -- it did not -- but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.
The President’s eulogy for 9-year-old Christina Green was especially moving. As he spoke of the young girl jumping in rain puddles in heaven, the First Lady could be seen openly crying, perhaps thinking of the strong resemblance to her own young daughters. In his focus on the lives of the victims, Obama provided a healthy respite from the 24-hour news media’s obsession with the vile perpetrator and his deeply sad and troubled life.
For the first time since his election, Obama seemed genuinely “presidential.” Rising above the partisan outcry, he demonstrated the true spirit of our democracy and proved to the world that America is still capable of responding to violence, not with more violence, but with reconciliation and healing. However, as the old adage goes, actions speak louder than words. A grateful nation must now wait to see if the President and his party will live up to his soothing rhetoric in the weeks and months to come.