Thank You, Mr. President

(cross-posted from WNYC's It's A Free Country)

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 words, in the final moments of President Obama’s address in Tucson, refer to the 9 year-old victim, Christina Taylor Green. Christina’s life began on a day of national tragedy, September 11th, 2001, and ended with a national tragedy — spanning a decade that saw rancor, war, and economic crisis, as well as historic elections and moments of nationwide unity, prayer and celebration. 

Her life began at the moment of President Bush’s peak of popularity, when he stepped beyond his partisan alliances and delivered words to a grieving nation. Now, a decade later, President Obama has stepped up for his turn to console us, calm us, empathize with us and inspire us.

And in his speech, President Obama did what so many Americans from both ends of the political spectrum had reprimanded him for not doing effectively at many points over the past two years: he led us.

If you didn’t hear the president’s remarks, it’s worth taking a few minutes to read them in full. As he describes the hopes a 9 year-old child held for her life and our country, it will be hard not to be moved. Our president is a tremendous storyteller — a strength that we need in a leader as we grope for a national narrative to make sense of these horrible events and to elevate us above the competing storylines, full of accusations and recriminations, that have surfaced over the past few days.

His speech detailed the lives that were taken, providing portraits of the victims of this massacre. He described the civic life in which they were participating by attending the “Congress at Your Corner” event.  And he did what he did so successfully in his campaign two years ago: he offered hope — hope that this tragedy could lead to national reflection and could inspire us to become better neighbors and community members, more attentive family members and friends. 

He offered a vision of how we could grow as a country in the aftermath of this event. “Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us 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 our hopes and dreams are bound together,” he said.

I’m sure there are many conservatives today grateful for a president who didn’t use his speech to call for legislation or to blame right-wing rhetoric.  And there are just as many progressives that have missed this narrative skill in recent Washington debates. Most importantly, there are many Americans who will find solace in these remarks, and maybe even purpose.

President Obama did not say we shouldn’t learn from these events, and he didn’t toss up his hands and suggest nothing could be done. There is room for the national debate over causes and solutions — but he struck the right tone to suggest those lessons wouldn’t be quick and obvious, and those conclusions needn’t be divided and accusatory. As he said,  “We must examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future.”

I hope the people of Tucson and the families of the victims found as much comfort in the address as I did.  I also hope other political leaders take a moment to listen. There is nothing wrong with a vigorous debate about gun laws, mental health and the dangers of violent rhetoric — that debate is important for the very civil society in which the victims were participating on Saturday. But it’s just as important to have leaders who can give voice to the unifying emotions we are feeling and need expressed.

President Obama, by the way, is not the only leader who has spoken movingly in recent days.  With all the debate about Sarah Palin, you might think hers was the only comment Americans heard.  But we also heard Speaker Boehner strike a note celebrating our democracy. We heard John Kerry speak movingly about what our country can accomplish when we work with national purpose.  We even heard Roger Ailes of Fox News suggesting his pundits “tone it down.” 

The president, the Speaker, the Senator from Massachusetts all remind us that there are ways to be patriotic other than war. It is honorable to serve our government. Participating in your community is a national duty. Justice Brandeis’s famous observations that "the most important political office is that of private citizen" was echoed by the president early in his speech describing the Tucson citizens who were present on Saturday morning:

These men and women remind us that heroism is found not only on the fields of battle. They remind us that heroism does not require special training or physical strength. Heroism is here, all around us, in the hearts of so many of our fellow citizens, just waiting to be summoned – as it was on Saturday morning.

Thank you, Mr. President. For at least a day, you’ve guided and strengthened our national discourse. For at least today, you’ve been the leader we need.

January 13, 2011

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