Obama speaks to ‘an American family, 300 million strong’

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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