Obama Calls for a New Era of Civility in U.S. Politics
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|Thu, 01-13-2011 - 10:57am|
TUCSON — President Obama offered the nation’s condolences on Wednesday to the victims of the shootings here, calling on Americans to draw a lesson from the lives of the fallen and the actions of the heroes, and to usher in a new era of civility in their honor.
The president directly confronted the political debate that erupted after the rampage, urging people of all beliefs not to use the tragedy to turn on one another. He did not cast blame on Republicans or Democrats, but asked people to “sharpen our instincts for empathy.”
It was one of the more powerful addresses that Mr. Obama has delivered as president, harnessing the emotion generated by the shock and loss from Saturday’s shootings to urge Americans “to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully” and to “remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.”
“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,” he said, “it’s 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.”
The president led an overflow crowd at the evening service at the University of Arizona in eulogizing the six people who died on Saturday and asking for prayers for the wounded, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who the authorities said was the target of an assassination attempt.
He warned against “simple explanations” and spoke of the unknowability of the thoughts that “lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind.” He suggested that the events should force individuals to look inward, but also that they should prompt a collective response against reflexive ideological and social conflict.
While the tone and content were distinctly nonpolitical, there were clear political ramifications to the speech, giving Mr. Obama a chance, for an evening at least, to try to occupy a space outside of partisanship or agenda.
“If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost,” Mr. Obama said. “Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.”
In Washington, members of the House reconvened for the first time since the shooting, setting aside a partisan health care debate to honor the lives of the victims.
The memorial service in Tucson took on the form of a national catharsis, including a presidential reading from the Book of Psalms. Thousands of students and others in the crowd cheered at several points during Mr. Obama’s 32-minute address, which sometimes had the feel of a rally dedicated to the Arizona victims.
“If, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse,” Mr. Obama said, “let us remember that 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 our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud.”
The president spoke after stopping to visit Ms. Giffords in her hospital room. He said he was told that shortly after his visit, Ms. Giffords opened her eyes for the first time, a moment that was witnessed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York; Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California; and other lawmakers who were there to pay their respects.
“Gabby opened her eyes for the first time,” Mr. Obama announced. “Gabby opened her eyes!”
The scene inside McKale Memorial Arena was a mix of grief and celebration, where a capacity crowd of 14,000 gathered beneath championship banners for the University of Arizona Wildcats. The service, which was televised nationally on the major broadcast and cable news networks, gave the president an opportunity — and burden — to lead the nation in mourning during prime time.
Aides said Mr. Obama wrote much of the speech himself late Tuesday night at the White House. Laden with religion nuance, the speech seemed as though Mr. Obama was striking a preacher’s tone with a politician’s reverb.
The remarks came hours after former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, a potential Republican rival to Mr. Obama in 2012, issued a sharp condemnation of the criticism that has been leveled against her in the days since the shooting. In a video message that filled the airwaves on Wednesday, she accused pundits and journalists of committing “blood libel” in a rush to place blame.
“There are those who claim political rhetoric is to blame for the despicable act of this deranged, apparently apolitical criminal. And they claim political debate has somehow gotten more heated just recently,” Ms. Palin said. “But when was it less heated? Back in those calm days when political figures literally settled their differences with dueling pistols?”
Since the shooting, Mr. Obama has spoken to many of the victims’ family members on the telephone, conversations that he helped spin into life lessons. In his speech, he told stories of each of the fallen victims: John Roll, a federal judge; Dorothy Morris, Phyllis Schneck and Dorwan Stoddard, all retirees who had gone to hear their congresswoman speak; Gabe Zimmerman, a 30-year-old Congressional staffer; Christina Taylor Green, a 9-year-old with a budding interest in politics.
He also praised the people who rushed to the scene outside the Safeway supermarket, including the two men who wrestled the suspect, Jared L. Loughner, to the ground; the woman who seized his ammunition; and the intern who rushed to Ms. Giffords’s side to try to stem the bleeding.
“We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us,” Mr. Obama said. “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.”
The first lady, Michelle Obama, traveled to Arizona for the memorial service and, with the president, visited family members and victims in hospital rooms and in private sessions before the memorial. At the service, she sat next to Mark Kelly, the astronaut who is married to Ms. Giffords, often reaching over to hold his hand.
The president was surrounded by a bipartisan group that included Justice Anthony Kennedy; retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a native of Arizona; and Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl and Gov. Jan Brewer, all Republicans. A bipartisan Congressional delegation from Washington also was seated nearby.
In Washington, House Republicans and Democrats met separately with the sergeant-at-arms and with officials from the United States Capitol Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who urged them to appoint a security coordinator in their home districts and to reach out to local law enforcement agencies for assistance, while also staying in contact with officers at the Capitol.
Several lawmakers described the message from law enforcement experts as telling them to use common sense, and that protecting all 535 members of Congress from largely unpredictable threats was a somewhat unmanageable task.
The president’s speech marked the third time since taking office that he had led the country in mourning. In November 2009, he eulogized the 13 soldiers who were shot at Fort Hood, Tex., and five months later he traveled to West Virginia to remember the 29 men who were killed in the nation’s worst coal mining disaster in four decades.
Here in Tucson, he saved his final words for Christina Green, the 9-year-old who wanted to meet her representative in Congress on Saturday.
“If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today,” Mr. Obama said, as the girl’s family, seated nearby, held hands. “We place our hands over our heart,” Mr. Obama said, promising to work to forge “a country that is forever worthy of her gentle happy spirit.”