The Challenge of President Obama’s Tucson Speech

By Cullen Dirner

Jan 11, 2011 3:18pm

“The President’s still thinking about what he wants to say, and will mostly pay tribute to the victims and their lives,” a White House source tells ABC News about the president’s speech tomorrow night in Tucson.

Another White House source says the speech will focus on the victims, the heroes, and those in Tucson impacted by the tragedy.  The president’s remarks in the Oval Office yesterday are a good reflection of how he’s thinking about the tragedy, the source said.

“As president of the United States — but also as a father — I’m spending a lot of time just thinking about the families and reaching out to them,” the president said. The president said it’s “important to also focus on the extraordinary courage shown” during the shooting.  “A 20 year old college student who ran into line of fire to rescue his boss. A wounded woman that helped secure the ammunition that might have caused more damage. The citizens who wrestled down the gunman. Part of that, I think, speaks to the best of America even in the face of such mindless violence.”

Speechwriters Cody Keenan and Jon Favreau have been working on the speech since last night, and President Obama will break out his proverbial red pen tonight to add his thoughts if not to rewrite the speech entirely.

Moments of national tragedy such as this one present challenges and opportunities for presidents. His remarks can be seen a moment of bringing the country together. But it can be a risk to the president if he’s seen as inappropriately politicizing a tragedy to further his political agenda.  White House officials say they are well aware of the pitfalls of being seen as using a calamity such to wage a political fight while a community is still in mourning and victims are still in hospitals fighting for their lives.

President Ronald Reagan’s January 1986 speech after the Challenger disaster is considered the gold standard. (Click HERE to read excerpts from Reagan’s autobiography about that incident.)

“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’” Reagan said, quoting Royal Canadian Air Force pilot and poet John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

President Clinton was praised for his speech at the Oklahoma Bombing Memorial Prayer Service on April 23, 1995, when he invoked “the lesson of the Psalms — that the life of a good person is like a tree whose leaf does not wither.

“My fellow Americans,” Clinton said, “a tree takes a long time to grow, and wounds take a long time to heal. But we must begin. Those who are lost now belong to God. Some day we will be with them. But until that happens, their legacy must be our lives.”

But one day after that speech, talking to educators in Minneapolis, President Clinton said he’d “like to say just a word or two, if I might, before this audience of educators and people who believe in and appreciate the value of free speech, about where we are in the aftermath of the Oklahoma bombing and what we are going to do about the kind of America our children will inherit.”

In those remarks, sometimes conflated with his Oklahoma City speech, President Clinton discussed the “loud and angry voices in America today whose sole goal seems to be to try to keep some people as paranoid as possible and the rest of us all torn up and upset with each other. They spread hate. They leave the impression that, by their very words, that violence is acceptable…If they insist on being irresponsible with our common liberties, then we must be all the more responsible with our liberties. When they talk of hatred, we must stand against them. When they talk of violence, we must stand against them. When they say things that are irresponsible, that may have egregious consequences, we must call them on it.”

Those remarks were met with immediate criticism from conservative radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh who saw the president of tying them to the actions of the Oklahoma City bombers.

“Liberals intend to use this tragedy for their own gain,” Limbaugh said, in comments that sound a lot like what he’s arguing today about Democrats’ behavior after the Tucson shootings. “The insinuations being made are irresponsible and are going to have a chilling effect on legitimate discussion.”

Clinton White House communications director Mark Gearan told the Washington Times that “people are all trying to make this totally a talk-radio speech and that’s not his point at all. He’s making a broader point about the level of discourse in society today.”

Obama White House officials are well aware that attempts to address the level of discourse in society — when as of now there’s no evidence harsh rhetoric played a role in this shooting – could have this president facing the same criticism President Clinton faced.

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