Obama and Palin on Tucson


Obama did a fine job in Tucson. He rose above party politics and the rancor of the past few days, expressed heartfelt sympathy for the victims and their families, called for unity, and said that we should speak to each other in ways that heal not wound. He said what the country wanted to hear. He was presidential. (When he wants to be, he can do it.)

I didn't think it was a flawless address. It was too long. He could have said the simple things he wanted to more forcefully if he had spoken for ten minutes not thirty. And like many others, if what I read is representative, I thought the mood of the audience was strange and even offensive: all that whooping and hollering, as though it was a campaign event. (You had to be there to understand, many commentators have reported. I'll take their word. Watching the event, to be honest, I'm glad I wasn't there.) In a way, though, this made Obama's speech even more impressive. He managed to evoke sobriety and reflection despite the din. An ordinary speaker, assigned the same words to read, might have been thrown.

It is irresistible to compare his speech with Sarah Palin's video. Not too bad at the beginning, just a little wooden. But warming to her theme she soon became factional, defensive, hectoring, and above all self-regarding--about as far from presidential as you can get. Some of what she said was true, to be sure; she has faced unfair criticism in recent days. But what a grievous misjudgment to respond as she did. First of all, there was simply no need. As more is known about the attacker, facts are overwhelming the instant theories about the culpability of the right: the public, much as it might want a more civil political discourse, isn't buying that line. Even if the charges were showing some sign that they might stick, this was the wrong moment to counter-attack (and it was a seriously bungled counter-attack, as well, because of the "blood libel" misdirection, intended or otherwise). This was a moment to do what Obama did, and rise above partisan politics. She will not do this, and perhaps cannot.

Even giving a response that she had time to polish and rehearse, she was not so much unpresidential as anti-presidential. The party's congressional leaders did far better, by the way. Their responses, I thought, were mostly dignified and appropriate. Many Republicans, of course, already wanted to see Palin's political career go no further. I think her video was so bad it will persuade even some admirers to reconsider.

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