Much has been written lately by people who think that President Obama has done an inadequate job of calming the nation’s fears. Today he takes on a very different task as the Consoler-in-Chief. On his way to the family’s Christmas vacation in Hawaii, the President will stop in San Bernardino to spend some private time with the victims and families of the shootings that took place there earlier this month.
I don’t expect that we’ll hear much about these meetings. But they’ll probably be much like the ones he held with the families of the shooting that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School three years ago. If you’ve never read Joshua Dubois’ account of that day, here is a portion of it:
The president took a deep breath and steeled himself, and went into the first classroom. And what happened next I’ll never forget.
Person after person received an engulfing hug from our commander in chief. He’d say, “Tell me about your son. . . . Tell me about your daughter,” and then hold pictures of the lost beloved as their parents described favorite foods, television shows, and the sound of their laughter. For the younger siblings of those who had passed away—many of them two, three, or four years old, too young to understand it all—the president would grab them and toss them, laughing, up into the air, and then hand them a box of White House M&M’s, which were always kept close at hand. In each room, I saw his eyes water, but he did not break.
And then the entire scene would repeat—for hours. Over and over and over again, through well over a hundred relatives of the fallen, each one equally broken, wrecked by the loss…
And the funny thing is—President Obama has never spoken about these meetings. Yes, he addressed the shooting in Newtown and gun violence in general in a subsequent speech, but he did not speak of those private gatherings. In fact, he was nearly silent on Air Force One as we rode back to Washington, and has said very little about his time with these families since. It must have been one of the defining moments of his presidency, quiet hours in solemn classrooms, extending as much healing as was in his power to extend. But he kept it to himself—never seeking to teach a lesson based on those mournful conversations, or opening them up to public view.
Those were quiet sacred moments – much as the ones today will be.
There is a twisted way in which our culture often associates courage with the kind of chest-thumping we saw on the Republican debate stage Tuesday night. But that dismisses the kind that it takes to look into the eyes of a mother/father/son/daughter/husband/wife who has lost a loved one to senseless violence and embrace their grief. There is a reason why most of us avoid avoid being put in a situation like that whenever possible. It’s soul-piercing hard. So today I want to take a moment to think about what it says about President Obama that he would chose to go there. Beyond what he’s actually done to keep us safe, that’s a least as important as what he says to allay our fears.