Obama’s Triumph in Tucson

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Tonight’s event in Arizona was a somewhat strange, not always comfortable, melange of moods and messages. But it concluded as an emotional and intellectual triumph–one that showed Barack Obama at his very best.

Early on, the wild cheering of the crowd felt tone-deaf and inappropriate. It’s true that memorials can also be a celebration of life. But there’s a way to convey that spirit without making it sound like a football pep rally. Some of the wild cheering, alas, brought to mind a pregame drinking session at the local sorority house. And it was distracting to see newly-elected GOP Congressman Ben Quayle, who aired a campaign ad calling Obama “the worst president in American history,” sitting just a couple of rows behind the president (just behind, surely coincidentally but perhaps fittingly, a few beefy Secret Service guards).

During his remarks, however, Obama pushed through the awkward dissonance between his initial solemn words, and then masterfully harnessed the crowd’s energy–yes, much like at a campaign rally–for the passages that celebrated Saturday’s heroes and the thrilling news that Gabby Giffords opened her eyes in her hospital bed tonight. From there he wisely played the role of conciliator, rising above partisan politics with a call for comity and civility. “What we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another,” Obama said–a line implicitly aimed less at the right than at the left, parts of which have strained to link conservative figures like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck to the Tucson massacre. Some analysts may call this more political positioning, or triangulation, from a president who’s been edging to the center and grousing about liberals of late. And perhaps it is. But this is also hardly a new theme for Obama. Read his September 2005 posting on the lefty blog Daily Kos, in which he urged combative liberals to tone it down. (“I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose,” Obama wrote. “A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate.”)

Just one qualm about this portion of the speech: Did the senseless murder of several innocent people really call for a sermon on civility in public life? Does this really feel like a central element of Saturday’s cruel and seemingly meaningless tragedy? I wonder how many Americans feel that these words satisfied their yearnings of the past few days.

Which is why the speech’s final passage was its most powerful. Obama went beyond the realm of political discourse to something more elemental, an articulation of life philosophy that touches every single American. Obama used the occasion of Saturday’s tragic deaths to offer a message to us all about about how to live, how to help one another, how to begin restoring a bruised country. Two passages conveyed this message. First:

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, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others.

And then, reiterated through the prism of nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green’s life:

I believe we can be better.  Those who died here, those who saved lives here – they help me believe.  We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us.  I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.

That’s what I believe, in part because that’s what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed.  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 had 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.

I want us to live up to her expectations.  I want our democracy 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….

If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today. And here on 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.

These calls to our better angels–directed less at the secondary issue of public discourse and more at the first principles of what we value as a society and the nobility of public service–perfectly matched the heartbreaking occasion. All the better that Obama delivered these words with both lyrical eloquence and moral authority. It was certainly the finest rhetorical moment of his presidency–and perhaps of his life.