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Tilting at Windmills

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January 13, 2011

OBAMA SPEAKS TO 'AN AMERICAN FAMILY, 300 MILLION STRONG'.... President Obama spoke at a memorial service in Tucson last night, and we should note at the outset that his task was inherently difficult.

Speeches from national leaders are about as common as the sunrise, but delivering remarks in the wake of a tragedy is a unique presidential charge, and it involves threading a rhetorical needle. Obama had to be positive, but not unsympathetic. Somber, but not depressing. Presidential, but not detached. He had to appeal to our better Angels, but avoid even a hint of political partisanship.

And so the president took the stage at the University of Arizona last night, mindful of these responsibilities, and delivered a genuine triumph. It wasn't just pitch perfect, it was as emotionally satisfying as any speech I've heard Obama deliver.

The president put the victims and their families at the center of attention, which is where they belong, before offering a larger vision about decency and modesty in public life. "Those who died here, those who saved life 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."

There was also one section in particular that stuck with me once it was over.

"We recognize our own mortality, and we 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 making the lives of other people better.

"And that process -- that process of reflection, of making sure we align our values with our actions -- that, I believe, is what a tragedy like this requires.

"For those who were harmed, those who were killed -- they are part of our family, an American family 300 million strong. We may not have known them personally, but surely we see ourselves in them."

At a fundamental level, I just like the idea of an American family. As we've seen over the last five days, we bicker and shout, and we often struggle to get along, but the threads that tie us together are stronger than we sometimes realize.

Or as the president put it, "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....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."

There was also Obama's call to be inspired by nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green, slain on Saturday.

"Imagine -- imagine for a moment, 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 some day 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 and 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 to live up to her expectations. 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.

As has already been mentioned, Christina was given to us on September 11th, 2001, one of 50 babies born that day to be pictured in a book called 'Faces of Hope.' On either side of her photo in that book were simple wishes for a child's life. 'I hope you help those in need,' read one. 'I hope you know all the words to the National Anthem and sing it with your hand over your heart.' 'I hope you jump in rain puddles.'

"If there are rain puddles in Heaven, Christina is jumping in them today. And here on this Earth -- here on this Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and we commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit."

These are powerful words -- delivered by a man who happens to be the father of two young girls -- and there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

I know how easy it is to be cynical, and look back at 2008 and the use of the word "hope" as a shallow exercise, but listening to the president last night, I felt like this captured some of the magic of the more memorable Obama speeches. It was as uplifting as it was cathartic.

I suppose it's only natural to consider what the lasting effects might be, if any, in the wake of remarks like these. And as nice as it is to think Americans who heard the president's words will take his guidance to heart, I don't seriously expect the country to turn over a new, more thoughtful leaf.

But that almost certainly wasn't the point. Obama was there to honor the victims of a tragedy, bring some comfort to their families and their community, and to urge the country to strive for better. He did just that, delivering a graceful message when his country needed to hear one.

If you missed it, I'd encourage you to take the time to watch it.

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Steve Benen 8:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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Comments

Amazing.

We don't deserve this president.

Posted by: Bryan on January 13, 2011 at 8:14 AM | PERMALINK

Yep, it was just like everyone getting together at Thanksgiving time to gloss over the reality of their lives wasn't it?

Posted by: Dredd on January 13, 2011 at 8:16 AM | PERMALINK

Regarding political discourse, he attempted to encourage people to be positive and respectful rather than admonishing them for being nasty and negative.
Yes, that's right, he attempted to whitewash the hatefulness of the left, who scream bloody murder (oops, sorry!) any time a patriot stands up to their agenda for destroying America.

Posted by: hells littlest angel on January 13, 2011 at 8:20 AM | PERMALINK

It had me crying in a lot of spots.
I think I openly bawled and sobbed at the 'rain puddles' lines.

"And here on this Earth -- here on this Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and we commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit."
That is one for the ages!

Posted by: c u n d gulag on January 13, 2011 at 8:22 AM | PERMALINK

The president was inspiring, we have listened to so much hate talk of late, it made me feel like we had hope of some kind of change.........
Now I hear that the right's hate machine is complaining about the ......T Shirts!

Posted by: Joan on January 13, 2011 at 8:23 AM | PERMALINK

"He had to appeal to our better angles..."

You mean Angels.

Posted by: Lance on January 13, 2011 at 8:25 AM | PERMALINK

Meanwhile,the new Speaker of the House was enjoying a martini at a Republican fundraiser. It was nice to see Nancy Pelosi filling in for him.

And did I miss something or did Obama snub John McCain? He passed right by him when he was greeting people and shaking hands. I can't blame him. Everytime McCain was in the shot he had that smirk on his face we've seen so often.

The timing couldn't have been better for Obama. His speech was a jarring contrast to the vile video of SArah Palin.

Posted by: SaintZak on January 13, 2011 at 8:29 AM | PERMALINK

I just read the comment from: Posted by: hells littlest angel on January 13, 2011 at 8:20 AM

WOW. He reminds me that the American family will always have bastard children that come from (his own title) Hell.

Posted by: Mark-NC on January 13, 2011 at 8:30 AM | PERMALINK

Sometimes I forget that parody doesn't display very well on the web.

Posted by: hells littlest angel on January 13, 2011 at 8:33 AM | PERMALINK

use
[parody][/parody]
whenever in doubt

Posted by: Danny on January 13, 2011 at 8:34 AM | PERMALINK

President Obama: "But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized 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 think differently than we do its important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.

Sarah Palin: "Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn."

Any questions?

Posted by: Eeyore on January 13, 2011 at 8:36 AM | PERMALINK

I'm relieved that Obama addressed the violent rhetoric directly, and that he identified civil participation in government with what is best in America. And I liked the subtle calling out of Palin: "We are grateful to the men who tackled the gunman as he stopped to reload."

Posted by: tib on January 13, 2011 at 8:44 AM | PERMALINK

What we saw and heard last night was a jujitsu master well versed in Sun Tzu's Art of War.. Take the high ground. Attack your enemy’s weakness. Leave him a golden bridge to retreat across.

It was the most political of apolitical speeches, because with every word, every memorable phrase, President Obama wove himself a Teflon cloak. The slings and arrows of Beck and Palin and Rush are sure to come, and when they do America will see them as the small and petty creatures they are.

Relax. He knows what he is doing; enjoy the ride.

Posted by: DAY on January 13, 2011 at 8:45 AM | PERMALINK

I was appalled at the speech. How could the President say nothing to help comfort the greatest victim of this whole affair? That, of course, is Sarah Palin.

Posted by: RW on January 13, 2011 at 8:48 AM | PERMALINK

Sorry, couldn't listen, once the Jesus/God/Juicyfruit bullshit shows up I'm outy.. That was pretty much immediately, if I wanted a Preacher of the United States I would be selling guns on the right. One of these days, we as humans may resort to more than mythology to actually address and solve our own "real" problems. We do have a choice!

Posted by: Trollop on January 13, 2011 at 8:50 AM | PERMALINK

Most of the "better angels" Obama is trying to reach are right wing nihilists. The almighty in "their" prose is the dollar not the Deity, hate and not healing.

He mentioned empathy. That word is not in the right wing conservative dictionary. Apathy, however, is on the first page. The national discourse will not change until the other side sees the poor, ill, and non-white as part of the american mix. Nothing he could possibly say will alter their mind set until we all are considered as part of the mix...

Posted by: stevio on January 13, 2011 at 8:51 AM | PERMALINK

Great speech but unfortunately it will not sway anyone on the rabid right wing to come to their senses. We are the enemy in their cowardly and pathetic worldview. Democrats, liberals, progressives; we are all no different than the terrorists trying to destroy our country.

The only real way strengthen this country is to publicly finance political campaigns and break up the media conglomerate monopolies.

Posted by: citizen_pain on January 13, 2011 at 8:51 AM | PERMALINK

citizen_pain, stevio, and others who are concerned Obama's speech won't persuade right-wing extremists: you're right, it won't. (At least in most cases.)

What it can do, and seems to have done already to some extent, is:

*expose the extremists by way of contrast between his words and theirs;
*isolate the extremists by persuading those in the center and the center-right that Obama's approach better reflects their values than the extremists do
*reframe the public debate so that the extremists (who will always be there) have less effective impact on what actually happens in the country.

There's no quick and easy way to do that. But Obama's speech points us in the right direction.

Posted by: massappeal on January 13, 2011 at 9:12 AM | PERMALINK

Eeyore -

Nice juxtaposition. Obama's speech was about "us". Palin's was about "them". That's why (at least let's hope) Obama's approach will prevail.

Posted by: Basilisc on January 13, 2011 at 9:15 AM | PERMALINK

@DAY, of course there's a political angle to this speech. But, I am often struck by what I percieve to be the President's fundamental decency. I'm pretty sure that he gave this speech because he thought it was the right thing to do. I'm also pretty sure that he thinks doing the right thing is good politics.

Posted by: AK Liberal on January 13, 2011 at 9:15 AM | PERMALINK

It's quite unfortunate the chump change over the 300,000 strong has enough money to by its way onto the airwaves, and negatively work their cretinism into our otherwise diverse, hard working American lives! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on January 13, 2011 at 9:21 AM | PERMALINK

Stevio, I think you meant "antipathy," not "apathy," right?

If only we could figure out how to convert antipathy into electricity, and thereby tap an ultimate source of renewable energy.

Posted by: jTh. on January 13, 2011 at 9:41 AM | PERMALINK

"he thinks doing the right thing is good politics."

Well said, AK Liberal!

-and that's why I closed with 'Relax. He knows what he is doing'

Posted by: DAY on January 13, 2011 at 9:46 AM | PERMALINK

Dredd, that may be the most succinct dismissal I read all day. You made me smile.

I think this speech worked best for people who, since the beginning of his appearances on the national stage, find Barack Obama deeply inspiring. I am not one of them. In the general context of his public speaking, I think he's done better, been more direct, and found a tone with an audience better suited to other occasions. I think the general message was generic - it boiled down to "it would be nice if we were nicer to each other", and who, really, doesn't think that - and the expectations he set were likely highly unrealistic (a number of conservatives, one might note, saw the speech as a gentle rebuke to the left. That's how universal and even vague it seemed). We may be slightly nicer in our public discourse, for a brief period. But the deeper reality is that our differences our deep, strong and very polarizing. That will not change, certainly not because of a speech.

I'll be even more transgressive and point out something most Americans like less: the reality is that we are not a "nice" people and this is not a "nice" culture. We are coarse, we are mean, and we treat one another, frequently, quite badly. And because we feel bad about that, we enjoy, at times, being lectured about doing otherwise. Then we feel better... and then we go back to what we were doing. Just give it a week or so, maybe a month... and I'm guessing that's where we'll be.

Posted by: weboy on January 13, 2011 at 9:50 AM | PERMALINK

fine words and sentiments, well done and needed.

But unfortunately back in real America, sales of personal weaponry jumped in reaction to "the event" as the "American Family" accelerated preparations and opportunity to do battle with itself.
.

Posted by: pluege on January 13, 2011 at 10:27 AM | PERMALINK

I'll be even more transgressive and point out something most Americans like less: the reality is that we are not a "nice" people and this is not a "nice" culture. We are coarse, we are mean, and we treat one another, frequently, quite badly. And because we feel bad about that, we enjoy, at times, being lectured about doing otherwise. Then we feel better... and then we go back to what we were doing. Just give it a week or so, maybe a month... and I'm guessing that's where we'll be.

I think that there is no lack of evidence to support your point of view. I also believe that there is ample evidence to refute your view. The President appealed to our better angels because we have them. By supporting what is right in people, you encourage them to tackle what is lacking.

This wasn't the moment for a political attack or a policy statement. It also doesn't hurt that he contrasted himself nicely with the hate mongers.

Posted by: AK Liberal on January 13, 2011 at 10:54 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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