It is believed to be a record number of such services for any modern president—especially when you add in the memorial services not linked to gun violence that he has attended: in West Virginia for 29 killed in a coal mining explosion in 2010; in Joplin, Missouri, after a tornado killed 158 in 2011; in Boston after three were killed in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013; and in Waco after 14 were killed in an explosion at a West, Texas, fertilizer plant in 2013.
Clearly, it has taken a toll on Obama, letting loose a flood of emotions bouncing from grief to acceptance to sadness to frustration and anger in the comments that he has made in the days since the South Carolina church shooting. That he is keeping count is clear from those statements. That he is deeply and increasingly frustrated also is clear, both from those statements and from the progression of his remarks at the all-too-familiar memorial services.
All modern presidents understand that they have a duty to serve as what presidential scholar Stephen Hess calls the "mourner in chief." But all dread the burden of speaking at such services. Since the dawning of the television age when Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, some presidents have stumbled in trying to fill that role.
Lyndon Johnson was particularly ill-suited to the challenge, as was painfully clear in his response in 1968 to the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Johnson responded more as legislator in chief than mourner in chief, appointing commissions and sending up legislative proposals.
Another president who struggled in the role was George H.W. Bush. He just found it difficult to get through a memorial speech without losing control of his own emotions. In 1989, he could not get through his speech at a Norfolk, Virginia memorial for the 47 sailors killed in an explosion aboard the USS Iowa. "The Bush family's not very good at that kind of thing, anyway," he told reporters later. "But you've got to show them concern "¦ You know how you do it? Pray for strength."
He added, "I did choke up at the end, but I did feel a kind of inner peace about the thing. I felt I had to represent our country. This one was tough."
Bush's son, George W. Bush, was better able to get through such speeches. But Andrew Card, his longtime chief of staff, said it took a toll on the president. After meeting with the families of victims of 9/11, Card described Bush as spent. "He was physically exhausted, he was mentally exhausted, spiritually exhausted, emotionally exhausted," Card said in a speech later.
Well-suited for the task were Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, both of whom were able to talk of the deceased as fathers, mothers, daughters, sons—members of the American family. They understood, as Reagan said in 1985 at a memorial service for the 248 soldiers killed in a plane crash, that he was "here in the name of the American people." Both Reagan and Clinton managed to mix tears and laughter in easing the grief gripping the nation.