I was pretty content looking at CPAN last night, watching the people milling around the University of Arizona’s arena after President Obama’s remarks during the memorial service for those killed in the Arizona tragedy. But that got vetoed. In the interests of domestic compromise, I ended up watching the reactions of the political pundits on a couple of the cable news channels instead. I wondered, as I listened to practically all of the pundits and commentators carp about something or another they found objectionable about Obama’s speech, if the president really had it all wrong. Was it possible our commander-in-chief could be so dense that he didn’t understand his public speeches were primarily made for the benefit of political pundit dissections, and not for the benefit of the real live American citizens that might be standing in front of him?
It only took ten minutes of the hyperbole from the professional peanut galleries for me to wonder whether or not they had watched the same speech I’d seen. Anderson Cooper of CNN seemed particularly annoyed by the tendency the crowd had of clapping and yelling both during and after each speaker’s remarks. But to me, the scene in the university arena seemed to be more like a good old fashioned revival than a traditional memorial service. In the moment when President Obama announced that Gabrielle Giffords had opened her eyes for the first time, when his voice transformed into that rush of energy and deep, hopeful timbre that many of us have come to appreciate, you could sense the wonder and awe within the arena.
The people of Arizona seemed genuinely touched to see the president of the United States among their midst in the aftermath of the assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the wholesale slaughter of her constituents, colleagues and friends last Saturday morning. They seemed to sense instinctively, in a nation that routinely tops ten thousand incidents of premeditated gun violence annually that result in a loss of life, that this days old massacre was different.
President Obama’s wooden countenance and sober eyes, which usually work against him, served him well yesterday as he fell back to the clipped, halting style of delivery which underscored the thoughtfulness and care into which he had helped to shape each distinctive phrase of his address. I’m still not sure that the nation has come to appreciate, the way a writer does, how much it means when a president is capable of writing his own speeches. And if you have read the text of as many of Obama’s speeches as I have, you know in an instant that this is largely his handiwork, spare and economical prose that features, as is Obama’s style, those things that we all know to be true.
After a brief introduction, when the president began to sketch for us, in brief yet evocative and intimate portraits, the lives of Judge John Roll, Dorothy Morris, Phyllis Schneck, Dorwan Stoddard, Gabe Zimmerman, and Christina Taylor Green, I started to squirm in my chair the way I usually do at funerals when the preacher begins to talk about the life of the person lying in the casket at the front of the church. I didn’t know any of these people, had never seen any of them before, but in the space of a few minutes, I went from being an assayer of a crime scene, scientifically counting the number of bullets shot and studying the trajectory of entry wounds, to a squirming, teary eyed mourner who knew that this sermon, like all sermons, would end with me and the rest of America coming face to face with the death of our fellow citizens.
When Mrs. Obama squeezed Mark Kelly’s hand, I was suffused with the inescapable horror that this man’s wife lay in a hospital bed with a hole through her head, an unimaginable searing of flesh and bone whose awfulness was just as tragic as the misery of those whose loved ones had perished for all time. The political pundit chatter about whether or not this moment would be recalled as a great moment in presidential history fell away like petals from a dying flower, dried up and useless. For the families in that arena who had lost their own flesh and blood, loved ones whose deaths wer being rehashed endlessly and publically on television and radio all week long, the president’s address was a thoughtful and intimate meditation whose main purpose was to honor their loss and remind the country of the fundamental things all Americans really need to value in a time of suffering.
There are many moments in the presidency of Barack Obama when I get the feeling that he is akin to Don Quixote, a man who stubbornly insists that it is in our best interests as a nation to strive to achieve that which heretofore has been unachievable.
Last night, I was glad that he was still that man.