A joint dispatch from Katy Steinmetz and myself:
TUCSON–They started lining up in the early morning, and by mid-afternoon, more than 20,000 Tucsonans had queued up under cloudless skies to get into the University of Arizona’s McKale Center to pay tribute to the fallen. The unruly line snaked for blocks through the downtown Tucson campus, a motley crowd of students, skaters, a sizable Hispanic contingent, professionals in business casual and parents shepherding their kids. Many wore navy blue T-shirts inscribed with “Together We Thrive: Tucson & America,” the theme U of A chose for the event. For a memorial service, the crowd clamoring to get inside seemed ready for a basketball game, tossing beach balls, posing for pictures with friends, sipping drinks and leaving a sea of debris in their wake.
At about 4 p.m., they began trickling into the standard, soulless arena, with its blue and red plastic seats, championship banners dangling from the rafters, an old-model Jumbotron. And they treated the honored guests with the reverence kids show athletes, offering rousing applause for each figure who flashed across the Jumbotron – from the neighbors and doctors who prevented the tragedy from being worse, to Arizona natives like Justice Sandra Day O’ Connor, Janet Napolitano and John McCain, to politicians like Nancy Pelosi. Gov. Jan Brewer, a controversial figure in the wake of SB1070, gave a classy speech. All these people had become characters in the narrative of a city. Other than instant folk-hero Daniel Hernandez, nobody garnered a mightier cheer than the President, who entered before a rousing rendition of “Fanfare for the Common Man.” The piece, played by a local symphony, was carried off with power and pride and defiance—it connoted marching on, whatever the odds. There were loud thumps of the timpani and clangs of the cymbal rather than chirpings of a harp.
The program’s first speaker, an Arizona professor offering a Native American blessing, made a passing but poignant remark: “Humor is healing.” Even during wrenching eulogies for the six people who died on Saturday, the speeches drew regular laughter. It could have been jarring; instead it felt natural. The crowd needed to mourn, but they were ready to celebrate their city, the heroes from their neighborhoods, their capacity for coming together.
Obama was introduced by U of A President Robert Shelton, who lauded the President for his intelligence, energy and heart. Obama revealed the latter. His speech was pitch perfect—not because he walked a political tightrope, but because he showed his humanity and Tucson’s. His speech, like the wake of the massacre itself, was at once brutally sad and inspiring—and never more so than when he announced, to thumping applause, that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had opened her eyes for the first time during a visit from her Congressional colleagues. “Our hearts are broken,” Obama said, “but we also have reasons for fullness.” The crowd’s hearts seemed mostly full. Had she not survived, the scales could have tipped in the other direction.
As he finished, parents were hugging their kids; spouses clasped hands; men sobbed softly. It was powerful and poignant and had nothing to do with politics. In the press section, it was hard – and it felt wrong, or callous – to observe professional decorum and not join in applause or standing ovations. Obama’s speech is already being dissected and probed for political fallout by the punditry, which is natural enough but it misses the point. The takeaway was right there in a sign hoisted by a woman halfway up the stands, near center court, as the program ended. It said: “We Will Heal.”