Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The empath in chief

President Obama left leaves Washington yesterday today heading for Arizona, to speak at a memorial service at the University of Arizona, a service intended to provide emotional support for the families scarred by the deadly shootings in Tucson on Jan. 8. The tongues of the punditburo are wagging already as to what tone the president should adopt when he makes his address — not just before the people at the service inside the McKale Memorial Center but also the people of the United States — in prime-time tonight.

There may be no more delicate a balancing act performed anywhere in the world. Cirque du Soleil’s got nothing on an American president speaking to the nation in the early throes of a national shock, striving to balance the anodyne and the anguish, the spiritual and the religious in an address literally meant to contain the multitudes.

Ben Feller of The Associated Press had some non-intel intel: “The president was crafting his speech on Tuesday, and his aides were reluctant to discuss it even broadly in its unfinished form, other than to say it will emphasize the memories of those lost. Still, Obama's comments since the shooting on Saturday, his experience in dealing with other tragedies and history's guide offer signs about how he is likely to respond to this moment. At the service Wednesday night, Obama's main mission will be to honor those who were killed by describing them in personal terms, so the country remembers how they lived, not how they died.”

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Of course, that much we pretty much knew. The president goes to Tucson prepared now to step in and fulfill a role that may or may not be on his official job description, but is now and has always been one of his more important jobs: mover of the heart, head cheerleader of the American spirit — especially when it seems like no one in the stands is cheering.

The President of the United States is often called on to act as empath in chief, hopefully blessed with the ability to both share in the emotions of the nation and to reflect those emotions back to that nation. When the need be, he's that singular necessary transmitter of both a nation’s grief and its resolve to transcend that grief.

Like FDR in the throes of the Depression and the wake of Pearl Harbor; like LBJ after JFK; like Reagan after the Challenger exploded; like Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombings and Bush after 9/11, President Obama is being called on to bring together the disparate strands of a nation predisposed to division — if only for one brief shining moment.

We got a taste of what’s probably coming today, on Monday morning. With the need for symbolism and the right gesture paramount, the president and First Lady Michelle Obama led the staff at the White House in a ceremony on the South Lawn, observing a minute of silence on behalf of the victims in Tucson. The day before, he’d called on the nation as a whole to do the same thing at the same time.

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There’s been speculation, much of it utterly deserved, as to how much pre-election Tea Party doctrine may have contributed to the Tucson shootings — contributed either through the ballistic dogwhistle rhetoric that Sarah Palin has made a stock in trade, or through the TP’s general cultivation of rebellion as a strategy, one powered by allegiance to the Second Amendment.

However much or little extremism may have played a role in the rampage apparently unleashed by Jared Lee Loughner, Obama observers watching for partisan fire from the president will be wasting their time. As he’s previously shown us he’s capable of doing — in several lapidary addresses during his campaign, at certain points during the BP Gulf oil debacle, after the 29 miners died last April, after the disaster at Fort Hood that left 13 American servicemen dead in November 2009 — Obama tonight will no doubt rally the nation to its higher sense of what it is.

He’ll leave partisanship to ideologue dogs like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly. Maybe Palin’ll fire a salvo. But come to think of it, no. She’s been having some problems in transforming rifle-scope crosshairs into surveyors’ marks, and can’t be reached for comment. By anyone.

Feller at The AP noted a novel touch of unifying stagecraft: “The president will be joined by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, another sign of the signal he wants to send: U.S. solidarity.” (The first lady will attend as well.)

And why not? It’s what’s called for right now. Stagecraft and solidarity matter when it seems like everything’s coming apart at the seams. President Obama will be summoned to be, well, presidential, in one of those times — infrequent, but not exactly rare — when we need the ceremony, when the customary cross-currents of American identity go dead calm … and we’re one nation. Expect the leader of the nation to reinforce that tonight.

Image credits: Obama: The White House (from video). Obama, Michelle Obama and staff: Pete Souza/The White House.

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