President Obama's Tucson memorial speech was as much about being a father as it was about being a president. He melded the personal and the political into a call for renewal and a road map to a healthier civic life -- all of it powered by memories of the dead, in particular a murdered little girl who expected great things of her country.
Obama did not take the easy way out at the University of Arizona. He could have simply eulogized those lost in the eruption of violence last Saturday, and raised up the heroes. And he did do all that in a moving way. But he also went much further. He confronted the sore points and flash points of the rampage and its aftermath. He urged Americans to take stock of themselves, their relationships and their responsibilities as citizens, and to make sure that we "align our values with our actions."
The speech was inspirational in a way that held echoes of Abraham Lincoln's words in a far more desperate, polarized time. His first Inaugural Address
in 1861, when he appealed to "the better angels of our nature" and urged his countrymen to "think calmly and well." The Gettysburg Address
, when he said: "We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."
As eloquent as he was, Obama did not neglect politics. It's all to the good, he said, that we've already begun a national conversation about the motivations behind the killings, the merits of gun safety laws and the adequacy of our mental health system. Then he beamed a series of messages to various points on the political spectrum.
The first was aimed at the Democratic liberals who quickly blamed Sarah Palin, conservative tea party rhetoric and gun imagery for inciting Jared Loughner, 22, who is accused of committing this awful act. "At a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do, 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 in a way that wounds," Obama said.
He went on, citing the biblical Job, to caution that "terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding . . . and we have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath. For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped these shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man's mind." Later he said directly that "a simple lack of civility" did not cause this tragedy.
Many prominent conservatives much appreciated those sentiments, judging by their positive reviews of the speech. But Obama appears to have posed an indirect challenge to them as well with his next words: "We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future." That sounded like a plea to conservatives to reconsider their opposition to tightening the nation's lax gun laws. Perhaps it was also a plea to politicians across the board to consider fresh approaches to handling mental illness.
And then the president unmistakably spoke to everyone. "But what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other. That we cannot do. That we cannot do," he said to a standing ovation. "As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let's use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together."
That was his moment to pivot from the political to the personal, in order to explain convincingly that it is possible to move in a new direction. We know how to pause, reassess and make changes, Obama said, because we do it when someone in our family dies. "We reflect on the past," he said -- did we spend enough time with an aging parent, tell a spouse "just how desperately we loved them"? And we look forward, reflect on our priorities, how we treat our families and our community, remember that what matters in the end is "how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better."
Those who were hurt and killed were part of "an American family 300 million strong," Obama said. He asked us to see in them our own spouses, partners, sisters, brothers and children. He asked us to strive to be better friends, neighbors, co-workers and parents. He asked us to be better Americans. "If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost," he said. "A more civil and honest public discourse," he said, would help us face up to national challenges and make them proud.
At that point Obama wiped his eye, maybe wiping away a tear. But the most emotional part of the speech was still to come, his tribute to the dead, the wounded and those who tried to save them. "They believed and I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here -- they help me believe," he said. "We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that's entirely up to us."
In a heart-wrenching conclusion that seemed to come from his own heart, the heart of a man with a 9-year-old daughter, Obama held out 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green -- "so deserving of our good example" -- as a beacon for a better future. He told the story, well known now to most of the country, of the baby born on Sept. 11, 2001-- one of 50 "Faces of Hope," a book about children born on that day, with wishes that she jump in rain puddles and sing the national anthem with her hand over her heart. She was just learning about her government, had just been elected to her student council.
"She saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. 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," Obama said.
"I want us to live up to her expectations," he said, and the applause built and continued and he kept going, speaking over it. "I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us -- we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations."
In heaven, he said, if there are rain puddles, Christina is jumping in them today. "And here on this Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit."
Only the hardest-hearted could disagree with that goal, fail to be touched by it. But is this a turning point? As we now know, even 9/11 -- the ultimate unifying national trauma -- did not set us on a path to harmony, or even civil debate. Obama is offering another chance at a new start. It's partly up to him to make it happen. The rest is up to us.
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