Friday, 14 January 2011

Obama at Tucson

Yesterday’s brilliant, inspiring memorial speech by President Barack Obama in Tucson, Arizona will, no doubt, be studied by students of speech, rhetoric and the presidency for years to come.

What stood out for me was the way Obama exhorted the American people to rise above partisan bickering, to pull together and become better citizens. He told a powerful story.

As Slate’s John Dickerson put it, the president memorialised the dead and celebrated the heroes. He told their simple but value-laden stories: Judge John Roll, “the hardest working judge within the Ninth Circuit”; George and Dorothy Morris “high school sweethearts who got married and had two daughters”; Phyllis Schenck, “a qifted quilter . . . whose life revolved around her three children”; Dorwan and Mavy Stoddart who “helped folks in need at the Mountain Avenue Church of Christ”; and Gabe Zimmerman, the aide who “made the cares of [Rep. Giffords] his own . . . seeing to it that . . . government was working for ordinary folks”.

The president had one more example:

And then there is nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green. Christina was an A student; she was a dancer; she was a gymnast; she was a swimmer. She decided that she wanted to be the first woman to play in the Major Leagues, and as the only girl on her Little League team, no one put it past her. She showed an appreciation for life uncommon for a girl her age. She'd remind her mother, "We are so blessed. We have the best life." And she'd pay those blessings back by participating in a charity that helped children who were less fortunate.

The point – the moral lesson – came when the president drew all the stories together and invited his countrymen and women to live up to and honour the examples set by Jared Loughner’s victims. Obama started the lesson by asking a question.

Their actions, their selflessness poses a challenge to each of us. It raises a question of what, beyond prayers and expressions of concern, is required of us going forward. How can we honor the fallen? How can we be true to their memory?

Here’s the core of the president’s answer:

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.

Then came the rationale, rooted in his values and what Obama clearly hopes are the better angels of his country’s nature:

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.

The president backed up the argument by presenting the fallen as embodiments of American values, the self-images of the nation:

We may not have known them personally, but surely we see ourselves in them. In George and Dot, in Dorwan and Mavy, we sense the abiding love we have for our own husbands, our own wives, our own life partners. Phyllis -- she's our mom or our grandma; Gabe our brother or son. (Applause.) In Judge Roll, we recognize not only a man who prized his family and doing his job well, but also a man who embodied America's fidelity to the law.

Of Rep. Giffords, he said:

In Gabby, we see a reflection of our public-spiritedness; that desire to participate in that sometimes frustrating, sometimes contentious, but always necessary and never-ending process to form a more perfect union.


In Christina we see all of our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic, so full of magic. So deserving of our love. And so deserving of our good example. If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate -- as it should -- let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost.

The president spoke of the debt of honour we owe the victims:

. . . The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better. To be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors and coworkers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy -- it did not -- but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.

We should be civil because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other's ideas without questioning each other's love of country and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American Dream to future generations.

They believed -- they believed, and I believe that we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved life here -- they help me believe.

President Obama summed up the moral of the story thus:

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.

There were some subtle metaphors too. When the president revealed that Rep. Giffords had opened her eyes during his visit with her, he may have been inviting the rest of us to open our eyes too, to see what really matters and how we can be better citizens.

And President Obama’s Tucson speech will be remembered for the powerful, pitch perfect way he told the nation’s story. He has had good reviews from the mainstream left and the mainstream right, because he gripped what his audience – the American people – were worrying about and then transcended the messy politics of the situation, offering them a higher path. In his own, more restrained way, Obama followed the empathetic example set by Bill Clinton at Oklahoma City in 1995.

As Max Atkinson has said: “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest”.

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