01.12.11

Mourner-in-Chief's Eulogy Puts Palin to Shame

The president got an arena; Sarah Palin was stuck at home—and the comparisons of the two speeches Wednesday on the Arizona tragedy get worse from there. Lloyd Grove on the Obama-Palin disparity.

The president got an arena; Sarah Palin was stuck at home—and the comparisons of the two speeches Wednesday on the Arizona tragedy get worse from there. Lloyd Grove on the Obama-Palin disparity. Plus, more commentary on Obama's Tucson speech.

Sarah Palin was the reigning queen of Wednesday’s cable news cycle for most of the day—the object of adoration or opprobrium, depending on which talking head had the microphone.

And then Barack Obama went and ruined it for her.

Of all the indignities visited upon Palin since the shooting spree in Tucson—many of which she invoked in the eight-minute video presentation she posted on Vimeo Wednesday morning—probably the most “reprehensible,” as she might put it, would be comparing her speech to President Obama’s.

But let’s do it anyway, shall we?

It was not, by any measure, a fair contest. First of all, the optics were woefully out of whack.

The prematurely retired Alaska governor had to serve up her remarks, really a litany of complaints against her critics and political adversaries, while seated in front of a non-working stone fireplace, apparently at her home in Wasilla—a claustrophobic setting framed by an outsize American flag.

The president got to deliver his affecting half-hour of heartfelt reflection and soulful inspiration—repeatedly interrupted by standing ovations—to an arena at the University of Arizona filled to the rafters with 14,000 mourners, notably members of his Cabinet and the Supreme Court, the governor of Arizona, the astronaut-husband of wounded Rep. Gabby Giffords, the heroes who risked their own lives to save others, the doctors and nurses who tended the injured and bleeding, and the friends and families of the six people, including a 9-year-old girl, who were killed by a gun-wielding maniac Saturday morning at a shopping center.

“At the end of the day, after listening to the president, we’ll know why he’s president and she never will be,” said Robert Shrum.

An additional 13,000 people stood outside the arena, listening to the Mourner-in-Chief.

Obama’s Arizona Speech: Video and Text

Full coverage of the Arizona shooting
There was rousing music and a river of tears, often washed away by the soothing balm of cheers. At moments of high emotion—as when the president announced that after he visited her at the hospital, “ Gabby opened her eyes for the first time!”—Michelle Obama tenderly took the hand of Navy Capt. Mark Kelly, Giffords’ mate. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, sitting on his other side, gripped the other hand. Later the first couple worked the rope line, hugging and kissing the bereaved.

Just on the level of majestic pageantry, it’s simply not possible for a Fox News commentator and TLC reality-show star to match the president of the United States and the Leader of the Free World.

Palin was a rowboat to Obama’s aircraft carrier.

And then there were the words they uttered.

Arguably, Palin—who has been under siege in recent days for her occasionally thuggish rhetoric during the midterm election campaign, and especially her use of a gun sight-and-crosshairs graphic to target Giffords’ congressional district, among other House Democrats—did an efficient job of appealing to her base, and re-enflaming their passionate love while predictably outraging her liberal detractors.

Mining a rich vein of resentment and oddly jaunty at points, Palin claimed her elite critics were trying to muzzle her by denying her the right of free speech. Certainly not afflicted by false timidity, she even invoked Giffords’ reading of the First Amendment on the House floor last week—and then, since the congresswoman was in intensive care on a breathing tube, unable to speak and under heavy sedation, with a gunshot wound to the head, Palin presumed to speak for her.

“It was a beautiful moment and more than simply ‘symbolic,’ as some claim, to have the Constitution read by our Congress,” Palin declaimed. “I am confident she knew that reading our sacred charter of liberty was more than just ‘symbolic.’ ”

Palin’s money quote: “Journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.”

I believe this passage—a target-rich environment if ever there was one—has received sufficient analysis elsewhere.

Obama, who initially had to labor to get the clearly excited, mostly college-age crowd into the proper mood of somber meditation, did not work any particular political base. Instead, he was studiously nonpartisan and, as he has occasionally managed to achieve at crucial moments in the past, both profound and soaring.

He dwelt most affectingly on the short, happy life of 9-year-old victim Christina-Taylor Green, who had just been elected to the student council and was eager to meet her congresswoman.

“So curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic. So deserving of our love,” Obama said. “Imagine: Here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future… She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted. I want us to live up to her expectations.”

After the speech, even Palin’s colleagues at Fox News had to admit that the president had hit it out of the park. “A memorable display of oratory and oratorical skill,” fierce Obama critic Charles Krauthammer admitted.

Meanwhile, over on MSNBC, veteran Democratic speechwriter Robert Shrum neatly summarized the Obama-Palin disparity: “At the end of the day, after listening to the president, we’ll know why he’s president and she never will be.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.