It was a strange site last Wednesday evening in Tucson when the president spoke at the memorial service for the victims of Jan. 8th’s tragedy. His eulogy was often interrupted for applause and cheering in a scene more fitting the State of the Union than a gathering to honor the fallen.
On television, it looked like a pep rally, a campaign event, circa October 2008. Yet for the strangeness of the ceremony, one thing stood out.
For the first time during his two years in office, President Obama looked like the president.
He didn’t try to score political points. He didn’t talk about himself. He wasn’t managing expectations. He was a leader.
This, however unfortunate it may be, was his moment. The speech needed to be hopeful and it needed to be inspiring and it didn’t need to be anything but well-delivered.
It was a speech John McCain couldn’t have given. Sarah Palin wouldn’t have pulled it off. Al Gore or John Kerry wouldn’t have come close. It called for eloquence and polish. It called for optimism.
He didn’t follow the lead of left wing pundits who blamed the Tea Party. He gracefully honored the stories of heroism and sorrowfully spoke of those who are no longer with us.
For the first time in his presidency, he wasn’t a Democrat. He wasn’t thinking about reelection. He was finally a leader.
He looked sincere when he struggled to get through a section about the 9-year-old girl who was killed by the gunman last Saturday, perhaps because he was thinking about his own children. If it was for the cameras, it was brilliantly done, but if it wasn’t, we witnessed the first real emotion from the president since November 4, 2008.
I couldn’t help but think back to the image of George W. Bush standing on the rubble at Ground Zero after 9/11. He was speaking into a megaphone when he said, “I can hear you. The rest of the world can hear you. And the people who knocked these buildings down are going to here all of us soon.”
No one else could have done that. Gore couldn’t have risen to that occasion and Obama couldn’t have either. It was a moment that needed a certain amount of resolute determination. We needed that confident one-liner to fire us up. We needed Bush.
But on Wednesday, we needed something different. We needed Obama, and he rose to the occasion. We were all looking to make sense of the tragedy. We weren’t looking for someone to fire us up; we were looking for someone to tell us there are rain puddles in heaven.
Now I don’t think Obama has been a very good president so far, but for the first time on Wednesday, he really impressed me.
Maybe this horrific tragedy in Tucson will be his turning point, or maybe this was just an aberration. Time will tell whether or not he’s found his stride, but for 30 minutes last week, he really looked like the president.
He stepped into the post-partisan, above-politics mold that we want our presidents to live up to. He had gravitas. He was a leader.
Perhaps the rest of the nation will follow his lead and take this great horror as a reminder that we can all do a little better.
Perhaps we’ll be a little nicer and a little more thankful that we live in country where moments of great sadness like these are so very rare.
Often times, tragedy brings out the best in all of us. People rise to the occasion when it really matters. In no small way, President Obama did that last Wednesday night in a crowded arena in Tucson.
On a January night, he helped heal the country, and probably his presidency, with a stirring speech given in the shadow of a gunman.