One of the most challenging roles that American presidents must play is that of national healer in times of great tragedy. Barack Obama fulfilled that mission last night, perhaps as well as any U.S. president ever has, with a remarkably touching speech that echoed the redemptive tone of an earlier president from Illinois without quoting his eloquent words.
Given the poisonous character of today's partisan, intellectually bankrupt politics, Obama's call for us to forgo the "point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycles," and seek instead to build a country that "lives up to our children's expectations," stands little chance of success. And yet he, like Lincoln in his first inaugural address on the brink of the civil war that erupted 150 years ago, suggests that we hearken to our better angels — if we can still hear them.
Obama's deceptively simple remarks at the University of Arizona were politics at its best — in part because they rose above conventional politics. Rather than sink into the abysmal back-and-forth between liberals and conservatives over which side is more responsible for the noxious tone of our public debate, and what role, if any, the over-the-top rhetoric of Obama's foes played in the senseless slaughter of last Saturday, the president focused on humanizing the victims and connecting them to the larger American family.
The speech was larded with personal detail that made each of the slain a real person whose loss could be powerfully felt. Thus, Obama spoke of how George Morris, a former Marine, instinctively "tried to shield his wife, Dot, when the shooting broke out." And of how Phyllis Schneck, mother of three, grandmother of seven, great-grandmother of one, "sewed aprons with the logos of the Jets and the Giants to give out at the church where she volunteered." And of how retired construction worker Dorwan Stoddard's "final act of selflessness was to dive on top of his wife," Mavy, sacrificing his life for hers.
Most touchingly, the president spoke of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, who was born on Sept. 11, 2001, and who, he said, "wanted to be the first woman to play in the major leagues, and as the only girl on her Little League team, no one put it past her." In her, Obama proclaimed, "we see all of our children, so curious, so trusting, so energetic, so full of magic. So deserving of our love."
In the mouths of some politicians, such sentiments could have deteriorated into banality, but Obama turned them to a higher and more righteous purpose. What we really owe children like Christina, Obama reminded us, is a "good example. If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost. Let's make sure it's not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle."
That comment was a call to civility, but also tough politics. In its gravitas, its secure footing on the moral high ground, its sheer calmness and humility, it was a rebuke to partisan carpers such as Sarah Palin, who earlier in the day released a whining video in which she accused her critics of committing "blood libel" against her.
Conservatives surely have a point when they complain that liberals have been too quick to attribute the tragedy in Tucson to their heated partisan verbiage. Yet liberals are on solid ground when they point out that inflamed rhetoric can have disastrous consequences.
In these times, those dangers lurk mostly on the right. As George Packer wrote in the New Yorker, "Only one side has made the rhetoric of armed revolt against an oppressive tyranny the guiding spirit of its grassroots movement and its midterm campaign. Only one side routinely invokes the Second Amendment as a form of swagger and intimidation, not so coyly conflating rights with threats. Only one side's activists bring guns to democratic political gatherings."
But in yesterday's speech, Obama was high-minded — and shrewd enough not to dwell on those particulars. He chose, instead, to bring words of inspiration and healing so poignant and fitting that Lincoln would have approved. It was a reiteration of the uplifting, unifying spirit that made Obama famous and got him elected — and the electrifying image of the nation as "an American family 300 million strong" a ringing reaffirmation of the essentially religious idea that triumph can arise from tragedy.
Obama seems to believe, and perhaps he is correct, that he should say and do the right thing and, for a tragic moment like this, let the politics take care of itself. Although the parlous state of our civic debate may have left him with no other choice, he handled a daunting challenge brilliantly.
Jack White is a frequent contributor to The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.