Precedent for the Consoler-in-Chief


Updated at 10:02 a.m. on January 12.

On Wednesday night, when President Obama addresses what is sure to be a packed crowd at the McKale Memorial Center at the University of Arizona, his words will reverberate not only in grieving Tucson but also across the country.

Whether the president can deliver a speech worthy of the moment -- the first attempted assassination of a female member of Congress, and the murder of six bystanders -- remains to be seen.

If similar moments of national grief are any indication, the president will acknowledge Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., as well as the lives cut short, ranging from community leader and federal Judge John Roll, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush, who was on his way home from daily Mass when he decided to drop by to visit his friend Giffords; or 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, who went to the event because of her interest in politics. He will surely salute those who responded to the tragedy, including Dr. Peter Rhee, the Korean-American surgeon who helped save Giffords's life, and Daniel Hernandez Jr., the lawmaker's intern, who wisely applied pressure to her bleeding skull, and who is gay.

"You have the potential to remind people what's best about America, which is our dedication to higher principles, to being one people, to being resolute for justice in the face of this, and that's the pivot the president needs to make," said Don Baer, who was President Clinton's chief of speech writing at the time of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

It's important to remember that Clinton, who is widely remembered for striking the right tone in his response to that tragedy, had several chances to do so. In his first remarks, he vowed to capture the evil cowards who had perpetrated the attack that left 168 dead. In his remarks at the large memorial service in Oklahoma City four days later, an event akin to the one Obama will be attending, Clinton reassured the crowd with one of the speech's more memorable lines: "You have lost too much, but you have not lost everything. And you certainly have not lost America, for we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes."

In Clinton's speech at Michigan State a couple of weeks later, he took on the question of civility more directly, admonishing the militia movement that had been linked to the bombing: "There is nothing patriotic about hating your country or pretending that you can love your country but despise your government."

Wednesday night won't be Obama's only chance to speak to the Arizona rampage. He'll also have the State of the Union on January 25, when he addresses the nation and Giffords's 534 colleagues in Congress. The reception the president gets there will have much to do with the success of his presidency. But so will his speech in Tucson.

The event will include a Native American blessing, a moment of silence, a poetry reading, and a presentation of a paper chain of messages from the public. The title of the commemorative event: "Together We Thrive: Tucson and America."

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Matthew Cooper is a managing editor (White House) for National Journal.

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