President Obama is off to a good start in his handling of what the networks are now calling “The Tragedy in Tucson.” The moment of silence he asked for on Monday at 11 a.m.—resonant for older Americans of the exact hour on November 11 each year that the World War I Armistice was once observed—is an appropriate expression of what we need right now: Less Noise.
But silence will not be enough. This horrific event offers the president a chance to show leadership qualities that he’s inexplicably hidden away in some blind trust. The shootings and the resulting debate over the climate of incivility play to his strengths as a calm and rational leader. Just as Bill Clinton’s response to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings helped him recover from his defeat in the 1994 midterms, so this episode may help Obama change—at least in the short term--the trajectory of American politics.
Clinton did more than just speak movingly after Oklahoma City and pull the country together as griever-in-chief. He was able to use the event to discredit the militia movement and tamp down hate speech on talk radio enough that it wasn't much of a factor in his 1996 reelection. The Oklahoma City bombings were later seen by historians and Clinton-era officials as the turning point in his political comeback. Of course the viciousness of the attacks eventually resumed (especially after the Lewinsky scandal) but they weren’t as fierce again until the Obama years.
Looking back last spring on the 15th anniversary of the bombings, Clinton offered useful perspective. “The words we use really do matter,” he said. “There’s this vast echo chamber, and they go across space and they fall on the serious and the delirious alike.” That’s the critical point in assigning indirect blame for Tucson. We can never know exactly what hate speech produces, but why risk its interaction with underlying mental illness?
Whether or not he attends the funerals for the Tucson victims, Obama’s big chance to lead will come in his State of the Union address on January 25. He can both to speak to the moment thematically and confront the substantive concerns raised by the tragedy.
Conservatives like to argue that these are isolated incidents carried out by lunatics and therefore carry no big lessons (unless the perpetrator is Muslim, in which case it’s terrorism); liberals view them as opportunities to address various social ills. Obama is in the latter category and should act accordingly. “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel famously said in 2008. The same goes for a shooting spree that gravely wounds a beloved congresswoman. Congress won’t enact gun control, as it did in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, but perhaps something positive can come from this.
The State of the Union will almost certainly begin with heart-wrenching symbolism. Ever since Ronald Reagan put a “citizen hero,” Lenny Skutnik, in the balcony of the House chamber after he rescued passengers from the wreck of an Air Florida jet that crashed in the freezing Potomac River in 1982, American presidents have all used their State of the Unions speeches to honor their own “Skutniks,” as they’ve come to be called in Washington. This year will be no different. At least one or two people connected to the horrific incident (The 20-year-old office intern who heroically applied triage to Gabrielle Giffords? A relative of slain federal judge John Roll?) will undoubtedly sit with Michelle Obama at the speech. And it’s hard to imagine that the poignant birth date of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Greene, September 11, 2001, will escape mention.
From there Obama and his speechwriters will try to set the incident in context. This won’t be easy. As I wrote last week, he needs to govern more in poetry than he has thus far. But if the prose is too purple, it falls flat. If he over-analyzes the tragedy, he risks seeming to middle-of-the-roaders as if he’s politicizing it. (The Right will think that in any event). And if he even implies a direct connection between the words and websites of politicians and the twisted mind of Jared Lee Loughner, he’s asking for trouble.
The president’s overall goal should be to champion civility and convince partisans to at least think twice before over-heating their rhetoric. It will be interesting to gauge the applause on the GOP side of the chamber if he extends the critique to talk radio, where the incitement has been the most conspicuous.
The parts of the speech about the tone of public debate—the use of violent imagery by both Republicans and Democrats, including Obama himself—may be among the most important words of his presidency. If he executes properly, he could simultaneously help the country heal and set the parameters of what’s permissible in our politics. The memory of Judge Roll, little Christina and the other victims (Obama will likely name them all, as he did with a much longer list of the dead at Fort Hood) will be powerful. But because Giffords is a member of the House, the references to her will have special resonance inside the chamber. “In the years that some of my colleagues have served—20,30 years—they’ve never seen it like this,” Giffords told MSNBC last March. I’d be amazed if Obama didn’t quote her in his speech.
Eventually the president will pivot away from the tragedy to the main sections of his speech, which, as usual, will include a description of national problems and a list of legislative priorities. While the focus will be on economic growth, other issues will get airtime. Even here the Tucson shootings can be relevant.
Judge Roll, an appointee of George H.W. Bush, spoke out publicly about the 100 unfilled vacancies on the federal bench, the result mostly of a dysfunctional Senate confirmation process. He felt that drug and immigration cases weren’t being heard because there aren’t enough judges. Obama should use Roll’s own words to prod the Senate to action.
Any hard look at the Tucson case suggests that the real cause of the tragedy was untreated mental illness. When Loughner was thrown out of Pima Community College, officials there told his parents he needed mental evaluation. But state and federal mental health budgets are on the chopping block. Obama should ask whether that makes sense and seek more funding.
Finally, the president should speak out forthrightly for better enforcement of existing gun control laws, which the gun lobby is always fighting to undermine. He should re-state his support of Andrew Traver to be head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive (ATF). The NRA is currently blocking the nomination because Traver once had the temerity to serve as an adviser to a police association on its gun violence reduction program. Obama can reiterate his (and Giffords’) support for the 2nd Amendment while using this chance to make a case for common sense gun control.
Even if he makes a good speech, the president may find that the memory of the Tucson tragedy fades quickly. Sad to say, if Giffords had died, she would have been mourned and soon the conversation would have moved on. But Giffords lives, thank God, which offers other possibilities. We won’t know for weeks or months whether she can function in public. If she can, she will prove a powerful referee of the boundaries of public discourse—more influential, perhaps, than the president himself.
This story originally appeared on The Daily Beast.