Last night’s memorial service for the victims of the Tuscon shooting was a bit odd. First, it began with a very long Native American blessing that seemed to bless everything, from the victims of the shooting to the doors in the arena where the event was held. The event was truly more pep-rally than memorial, with thunderous applause, shouting, whistling, and other actions that fit the venue but not necessarily the tragedy. But perhaps, as Brit Hume pointed out last night, what Arizona, and the Nation, needs is a pep-rally, not a memorial.
Daniel Hernandez, the intern credited with saving Congresswoman Giffords, rejected the title of “hero” and spoke completely from the heart, not using notes. Current Governor Jan Brewer and former Governor Janet Napolitano both spoke movingly, but it was President Obama’s speech that deserves the most praise.
Using notes instead of a teleprompter, President Obama seemed completely in control of the situation. The speech was no doubt written with the expectation of a somber service, but the President, as a masterful speaker, adapted his words to the tone of the event. Frances Martel of Mediaite.com summed up the speech like this:
In a poignant address filled with scripture, the President individually honored those killed and injured, plead with Americans not to “turn on one another,” and offered the best news about Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of the night: she opened her eyes today.“There is nothing I can say that will fill the sudden hole torn in your hearts,” he began, lending the audience condolences but making clear he did not expect them to help much. He then mourned with them, individually, for each of the victims of the attack. “These men and women remind us that heroism is found not only on the fields of battle,” he said of them after finishing the list, “Heroism is here, all around us, in the hearts of so many of our fellow citizens, just waiting to be summoned.”
The speech was very often interrupted by applause and, occasionally, standing ovations for those like Daniel Hernandez, the intern who ran to Rep. Giffords rescue upon hearing the gunshots, and for 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green. But by far the greatest applause came for the most surprising, most uplifting news of the night: Rep. Giffords opened her eyes today for the first time. Among those standing in the crowd, clearly stricken with the pain of watching her recover was husband Mark Kelly, who sat beside First Lady Michelle Obama.
The President then moved on to address just what the nation must do to face the tragedy, to “impose some order on the chaos and make sense out of that which seems senseless.” He noted that “scripture tells us there is evil in the world,” that there was no explanation to the shooting, and then issued a soft-toned plea to Americans to keep from blaming each other for this mess, without mentioning anyone or any ideology by name. He noted that those in the public political sphere are especially responsible for keeping from turning on each other, but was far from touching any of the specific points in the current national conversation– no crosshairs or gun imagery came up, nor any candidates or pundits on either side.
In closing, the President evoked the view of America that young Christina Taylor Green, when wanting to visit the Congresswoman, must have had, and a debate “worthy of those we have lost,” and promised to “commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit.” The crowd, on its feet, received the remarks with praise– we’ll have to wait to see if the news media will react similarly.
Since that piece was written for Mediaite, the press has indeed acted favorably. Chuck Todd, NBC News Chief White House Correspondent, admitted that the speech gave him chills. It did the same to me. Thank you, President Obama, for helping to heal the nation and elevate the political discourse surround this tragic event.
Will this be a turning point in Obama’s Presidency? Most pundits say no, that one event cannot completely shift things so demonstrably to constitute a turning point. But undoubtedly this is a preview of what we should expect for the next two years as the President gears up for reelection. The address last night reminded everyone of the Obama they liked, the guy who won the election based on Hope and Change. President Obama rose above the mess, and although he didn’t walk on water, he certainly built a bridge over the trouble waters of political rancor.
Thank you, Mr. President.