I’m sure anyone who covers politics was looking at Wednesday’s memorial service in Tucson and wondering how Barack Obama would perform. Would he continue the barrage of attacks against conservatism as others in the media and on the left had done? Would he be distant and cold as he has been in so many speeches? Or would he actually get it right? Those were the thoughts on my mind. I didn’t give much consideration to the “event” itself, and yes, it turns out that “event” is a more fitting word than “service.”
To his credit, Obama said the right stuff, mostly. He delivered an unscripted updated on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords which brought the crowd to its feet.
Obama quoted from the Bible, saying, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.” Obama also presented mini biographies of the victims which helps turn them into “real people” for all of us who didn’t know them personally.
Obama also called for calm and an end the the blame-game:
But what we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. 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 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.
After all, that’s what most of us do when we lose someone in our family – especially if the loss is unexpected. We’re shaken from our routines, and forced to look inward. We reflect on the past. Did we spend enough time with an aging parent, we wonder. Did we express our gratitude for all the sacrifices they made for us? Did we tell a spouse just how desperately we loved them, not just once in awhile but every single day?
What I think surprised many, including myself was the nature of the service. The phrase “pep rally” has been used to describe it. In many ways, it was like a political rally without the politics. It had t-shirts, and it had a theme: Together, We Thrive.
Fox News’ Brit Hume described his reaction this way:
“I just wanted to add, I think the president prepared this speech in the expectation that this would be indeed a memorial service,” Hume said. “I think it ended up being nothing of the kind. This was much more of a pep rally and perhaps that is precisely what the people of Tucson and the people of this region needed and wanted. And it really was the case that the audience was in control of the tone of this event. The audience’s reaction to the president and to the earlier speakers, and to some of the earlier speakers as well – set the tone for the event. The president prepared his speech to have a certain kind of tone. I think he would have liked it not to go on for 36 minutes or whatever it did, but it was interrupted repeatedly by applause but he couldn’t help that. It was longer, as Chris [Wallace] pointed out, some of the other events on similar occasions.”
John Hayward, writing for Human Events, described the service as “two events in Tucson.” Hayward adds, “One of them was a memorial service for the dead and wounded from Jared Loughner’s rampage on Saturday. This event went quite well. The other was an embarrassing political pep rally, held before a mob of rowdy kids.”
The undisciplined audience was bad enough to provoke criticism from observers across the political spectrum, and that leads to some questions. It is said that the event organizers cannot be blamed for the behavior of the crowd. Is that really true? They staged this thing like a pep rally, complete with rush-week T-shirts bearing the rock-concert name of the event, “Together We Thrive.” Organizers could have prepared the crowd by insisting on silence during the speeches, and making sure the kids understood the gravity of attending a memorial service that would be viewed by the entire world.
Kudos to President Obama for delivering remarks that were made to heal… not heal a constituency or voting bloc, but all of us. The crowd, however, should have had some kind of clue what a memorial service is all about. In addition, t-shirts and themes were not necessary in order to pay tribute to those who were killed. This is about honoring the fallen, not promoting a concert.