Washington – There are moments that define a presidency, and Barack Obama’s speech Wednesday night to a memorial service for Arizona shooting victims may be one.
First in a moving eulogy to those who died, then in the uplifting tales of those who acted heroically, finally in his call to the nation to live up to the ideals of a slain 9-year-old girl, Obama recaptured, at least temporarily, the appeal that first thrust him onto the national stage — the sense that the country is a family that yearns to be united, not divided.
“It reminded us of how he got to be president,” said Wayne Fields, an English professor at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert on presidential rhetoric. “It wasn’t because of something he was. It was something that we longed for. That was to be whole.”
Obama’s speech was born of tragedy in Saturday’s shooting rampage in Tucson that killed 6 and injured 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. All were gunned down while participating in one of the most basic rituals of American democracy — ordinary people meeting with their member of Congress.
A relatively new phenomenon of American public life, the role of president as the nation’s counselor at times of tragedy dates only to Ronald Reagan, who in his 1986 speech after the space shuttle Challenger exploded, showed the world how to channel a nation’s grief, put sacrifice into context and point the way forward.
The Tucson shootings presented a test of whether Obama could rise to the challenge — and opportunity — as Reagan did, as Bill Clinton did after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and as George W. Bush did after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Obama wrote much of his remarks himself, and worked with speechwriter Cody Keenan since Monday. He was still making changes after landing in Arizona Wednesday afternoon, and inserted its most dramatic line backstage just minutes before walking into the arena at the University of Arizona.
That was his revelation that the critically injured Giffords had opened her eyes just minutes before, something he learned from her husband on the short limo ride from hospital to arena. People in the arena cheered and cried at the news.
“A powerful moment,” Fields said.
Obama started the speech with what amounted to a eulogy for the fallen, telling in simple words the stories of those who’d been killed.
He followed with the stories of those who acted heroically, such as the intern who went to Giffords’ aid, the man who instinctively tried to shield his wife from harm, the woman who wrestled with the gunman to take away his ammunition before he could shoot more.
Though he cited Scripture in the emotionally charged account, Obama spoke only about the people involved that day, moving the audience with stories of their lives and actions, not with lofty rhetoric.
“You don’t get the phrases you’ll rush out and put on a stained glass window,” said Fields, author of a book on presidential speechmaking, “Union of Words.”
“The moment belongs to the victims and so he tells their story. So many of the speeches in recent days from both the left and right all came back to being about me. He’s comfortable not making the occasion solely about him.”
Obama built to a crescendo of sorts when he turned finally to the story of Christina Taylor Green, the precocious 9-year-old who was interested in public service and was killed while waiting to meet her congresswoman.
“I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it,” he said.
With two daughters himself, Obama looked down and appeared to pause to control his emotions at one point while speaking about Christina.
It was a rare glimpse of the personal in a president whose cool demeanor — critics call it a disconnect — stands in contrast to the more emotive Clinton or Bush.
“He was more emotional than I’ve seen him,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, a scholar of presidential communications from Towson University in Maryland. “He was very real, very genuine.”
Watching the speech on TV at a Washington restaurant — the major networks interrupted entertainment programming to show Obama’s remarks — Kumar said patrons had tears in their eyes.
“The nation stopped,” she said. “People stopped and listened and felt the tragedy.”
Obama at first appeared surprised by the cheers and applause in the arena.
“I read the speech several times and thought that there wouldn’t be a lot of applause, if any,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House Press Secretary.
While the bursts of applause and cheers struck some observers, most watching on TV from somewhere else, as inappropriate for a memorial service, aides and analysts said it reflected the venue — a basketball arena rather than a church — and the yearning of Arizonans for good news in a terrible week.
Gibbs said they needed to celebrate the lives of the victims.
For Obama, the speech offered a chance to return to a theme he’s talked about periodically, the need for a more civil and less partisan politics. That was the message he delivered as an Illinois state senator at the 2004 Democratic National Convention — the speech that made him a national star — and it also drove much of his appeal in 2008.
Even one of his most vocal critics, talk show host Glenn Beck, lauded the speech.
“This is probably the best speech he has ever given, and with all sincerity, thank you Mr. President, for becoming the president of the UNITED States of America,” Beck said Thursday.
It also allowed Obama a new chance to connect with the American people at a moment of maximum exposure.
“Every president begins his term with the almost undivided attention of the American public. But that window of opportunity shrinks almost every day. A moment like this re-expands that window of opportunity,” said Dan Schnur, the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
“He’s always been criticized for being emotionally distant. This may have been the first opportunity since his election to redevelop an emotional connection with voters. . . . By giving a nonpolitical speech, he gave himself an opportunity to benefit politically.”