Tonight, in my estimation, President Obama delivered a brilliant, spellbinding, and fitting speech about the Tucson shootings. This was the best speech I’ve ever heard him give.
It can be divided into three parts – a tribute to the victims, a denunciation of attempts to use the incident to make partisan attacks, and a related call for more civility in politics. In making these points, Obama steered away from what is too often Topic A in his speeches – Barack Obama. I heard very little of the first person during most of this speech. That is one reason why I liked it so much and one of the reasons I think it will play very well for Obama.
The discussion of the victims was just about perfect. This kind of stuff is “meat and drink” for any first rate politician with good speechwriters. However, it’s difficult to imagine anyone doing better with the material than Obama did. With the telling detail and light touches of humor, Obama brought the victims to life without ever becoming mawkish. Their friends and families were no doubt lifted, which is the most legitimate function of a gathering like this.
The second portion of the speech was Obama’s answer to those who have used the shooting to attack their political enemies. This was Obama taking the high road.
The decision to take that road seems like a no-brainer. Here was the perfect opportunity for Obama simultaneously to “triangulate” (he didn’t call out the left by name, but a turned-off public knew whom he meant) and sound presidential. But Obama has passed up or fluffed such opportunities at times in the past.
He did not fluff this one. Rather, he perfectly articulated the distinction between proper political arguments based on the attacks – e.g., arguments in favor of policies that might (or might not) make such attacks less likely in the future – and shameless attempts to blame the shootings on one’s political enemies.
Obama’s call for civility may bother some, but I don’t think it should. Again, Obama got it just right – insufficiently civil discourse had nothing to do with these shootings, but greater civility would be desirable nonetheless, and a fitting tribute to the nine-year old victim who was becoming so engaged in American politics. Obama’s call for a politics closer to what this little girl imagined our politics to be was pretty compelling rhetoric.
Unfortunately, this is probably all it was. Calls for more civility in our politics are, as I have suggested, a bit like calls for better weather.
If the tone of our politics is going to change, the change will have to start at the top. You can’t have “civil” politics if the U.S. president is constantly taking cheap shots and employing overly harsh rhetoric. Obama, with his lack of graciousness towards his predecessor, his references to “enemies,” and so forth has set a poor tone indeed.
If he really has been moved by this tragedy to turn over a new leaf, then his speech will prove to be more than “mere words.” And Obama will be the beneficiary, because most Americans yearn for a more civil brand of politics.
But let’s not hold our breath. What we saw tonight was a terrific speech, not a conversion.
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