01.12.11

Obama's Passion as President and Parent

The president spoke as the adult in the room to inject civility into his Arizona speech—and spoke frankly instead of making false promises to a grieving nation.

The president spoke as the adult in the room to inject civility into his Arizona speech—and spoke frankly instead of making false promises to a grieving nation. Plus, more commentary on Obama's Tucson speech.

President Obama turned the podium into a pulpit at the memorial service for the shooting victims in Tucson last night.

His voice trembling at times with emotion and swinging with the rhythms of scripture, the president gave a speech that was alternately solemn, searching, and soaring.

And while the transformation of the somber service into an arena full of applause was surreal, the effect inside the room seemed cathartic—a celebration of life and country.

There was much talk before the speech about how President Obama had little room to maneuver. Any mention of civility, it was said, would descend into the partisan blame game. Policy would seem out of place and opportunistic. The great presidential speeches held out as parallel moments—Clinton at Oklahoma City, or Reagan after the Challenger explosion—did not fit this tragedy.

But President Obama put his mark on the moment by presenting himself as a father figure, assuring Arizona and the nation that everything would be all right.

He paid tribute to each of the murder victims with vignettes, making them symbols of different stages and paths of American life. And he brought the crowd to tears and cheers when he announced that Gabrielle Giffords had opened her eyes just hours before, repeating the words like they were evidence of a miracle. At that, first lady Michelle Obama reached out to Giffords’ husband in a moment of unguarded emotion.

He defied the folks who thought that any mention of civility would be polarizing itself by taking on the partisan blame game directly.

Obama’s Arizona Speech: Video and Text

Full coverage of the Arizona shooting
Tucson is a town that cried itself out over the past five days. What its residents needed was a speech that gave them hope, relief, and a sense of purpose. The president did not make false promises about the speed of recovery ahead or the hope for finding a simple answer to reason that evil visited a supermarket last Saturday. He spoke frankly, like a father or friend, reminding us that in times of tragedy, “We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame—but rather, how well we have loved.”

He defied the folks who thought that any mention of civility would be polarizing itself by taking on the partisan blame game directly from the increasingly familiar (and needed) perspective of the adult in the room: “At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized… it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”

But to my ears, the finest section of the speech came at the end, when the president came up with a novel spin on the obligatory nod to the Gettysburg Address at the heart of all eulogies: that we highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.

It returning to the life story of 9-year-old Christina Green, he largely sidestepped the ready-made metaphor of her birth on 9/11. Instead, he chose to focus on Christina’s budding enthusiasm for public service, which led her to run for student council and drew her to the congresswoman’s meet-and-greet that day:

“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,” the president said. “I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it.” And then the line that captured his passion as a president and a parent to a surge of applause: “All of us—we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.