Tucson 'Coming Together' Helped Community, Jarred Some TV Viewers

While attendees spoke of 'coming together;' some TV viewers jarred by tone.

ByZ. Byron Wolf
January 13, 2011, 1:50 PM

Jan. 13, 2011 — -- President Obama's speech to the memorial service in Arizona Wednesday moved people on both sides of the political aisle and was praised as an attempt to bring Americans together after the tragic shooting by a lone gunman last Saturday.

The event took place before more than 12,000 people at the McKale Memorial Center, where the University of Arizona's basketball team plays. While it was billed in the press as a memorial service, what occurred was part memorial, part pep rally, with moments of quiet reflection and also standing ovations.

President Obama brought repeated standing ovations and applause as he exhorted Americans, "We can be better," and asked them to live their lives in a way to fulfill the expectations of the nine-year-old girl, Christina Taylor, who went to the grocery store last Saturday to meet her congresswoman and never went home.

"I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it," he said to thunderous applause.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, said the speech was excellent.

Former President George W. Bush's speechwriter Michael Gerson, who rarely, in his columns for the Washington Post, gives praise to President Obama's speech writing, had some criticism about this one too.

Gerson said the speech was none of the things great memorial speeches usually are: "…tightly written, poetically phrased and solemn in setting and delivery…"

But, wrote Gerson, "it had a good heart."

While firsthand accounts of the speech from Tucson accepted the rowdy atmosphere and had onlookers praising it as an example of Tucson coming together, some TV viewers who expected a memorial service were jarred by the yelling and applause.

"The community's desire to heal, to rise from the ashes of tragedy manifested iteslf in an enthusiasm that may have struck some as odd for a memorial," said ABC's Jake Tapper, who traveled to Tucson with President Obama for the memorial.

Watch Tapper's extended report from Nightline here.

Obama's Tucson Speech: Memorial or Pep Rally?

The marriage of rally and memorial was not accepted by all.

"The sentences and paragraphs of President Obama's speech last night were beautiful and moving and powerful. But for the most part they didn't quite transcend the wildly inappropriate setting in which he delivered them," wrote John Podhoretz in the New York Post. "There was something about the choice of place, a college arena with the appropriate name of the McKale Memorial Center, that made the event turn literally sophomoric."

On Fox News, Brit Hume said, "This was much more of a pep rally and perhaps that is precisely what the people of Tucson and the people of this region needed and wanted. And it really was the case that the audience was in control of the tone of this event."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked Thursday by a reporter about the "pep-rally aspect and tone of the event last night."

"I'm not a Tucsonian, obviously, but I think that having been there for a day before the President got there, you could understandably feel the weight of what had happened. And I think part of that -- I think part of the grieving process is celebrating the lives of those that were lost and celebrating the miracles of those that survived, the -- I think you've all probably by now read the transcript from the two members on the plane last night about their personal experience and -- with the congresswoman in her hospital bed. That -- you know, it's an emotional thing to read," said Gibbs, adding that he was surprised by the applause.

Obama's Tucson Speech: Memorial or Pep Rally?

"I read the speech several times and thought that there wouldn't be a lot of applause, if any," Gibbs said. "I think many of us thought that. But I think you -- I think there was a celebration, again, of the lives of those that have been impacted, not just those that -- not just at that grocery store but throughout the country. And I think that if that is part of the healing process, then that's a good thing."

Controversy over how people grieve is nothing new. When Minnesota Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone died shortly before he was to stand for reelection in 2002, his funeral turned into a political rally. The tone deafness of that event backfired on Democrats at the ballot box in Minnesota and perhaps nationally.

But in this case the midterm election is in the rear-view mirror. And while there were cheers and applause, the President's message was one of hope, and he spoke to both parties.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events