Obama Addresses Nation About Tucson Shooting

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WATCH Jan. 28, 1986: Reagan on Challenger Tragedy

In times of crisis and tragedy, Americans have turned to their president for leadership and words of reassurance. At a memorial service tonight in Tucson, President Obama will try to help the nation make sense of a tragic shooting that took the lives of six innocent victims.

On Monday Obama urged Americans to focus on the stories of bravery that came out of last Saturday's shooting, saying they speak to "the best of America, even in the face of such mindless violence."

"I think it's going to be important, I think, for the country as a whole, as well as the people of Arizona, to feel as if we are speaking directly to our sense of loss," the president said on Monday at the White House, "but also speaking to our hopes for the future and how out of this tragedy we can come together as a stronger nation."

Obama is expected to focus on the victims, heroes and those in Tucson that have been impacted by the tragedy.

Michael Waldman was the chief speechwriter for President Bill Clinton from 1995-1999. He said that when a president gives an address in the wake of a tragedy, it is important to speak to the grieving audience in front of him and the nation as a whole.

"Any president has to balance both comforting the immediate families and speaking to the country's values and how to make changes to make sure the things don't happen again," Waldman said.

Waldman said for a speech like the one the president will give tonight, less is more.

"This is not something where you're aiming to have words chiseled on the wall of the presidential library," he said.

Presidents can use tragedies and crises to bring the nation together, but there is also a risk to being seen as politicizing such events to further a political agenda.

Obama White House officials are well aware of the pitfalls of being seen as using a calamity such as the Tucson shootings to wage a political fight while the nation mourns and victims fight for their lives.

Several former presidential speechwriters – Democrats and Republicans - told ABC News that this speech should not be political and that it is first and foremost a eulogy.

"There's a time and a place for everything. The president, I hope, will say that violent words have no place in our society. The funeral is not necessarily the place to say it," Waldman said.

William McGurn, chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush from 2006-2008, emphatically said the president should not address the ongoing debate about political rhetoric and what role, if any, it had in the Tucson shootings.

"It's not appropriate," he said. "There are some things that make a problem worse."

Historian Douglas Brinkley said there is no need for a finger-pointing moment. "It's a national healing. [Obama's] got to be the healing agent of our nation," he said.

But, Waldman said, some Americans will expect Obama to speak out against violent language and heated political rhetoric. But that should come in a future address.

"There are always tragedies but where progress has come from the tragedies is when we don't just bemoan what's happened but point forward and toning down the language, toning down the violent rhetoric in politics, that's a good place to start," Waldman said.

Reagan Reassures Nation Reeling from Challenger Explosion

Tragic events in American history have prompted some of the most memorable presidential addresses, as leaders rose to the challenge of soothing a grieving nation.

On Jan. 28 1986, President Ronald Reagan was preparing to deliver his State of the Union address but a tragic event changed his plans.

Earlier that day, the nation watched in stunned horror as the space shuttle "Challenger" exploded on take-off, killing seven crew members including Christa McAuliffe, an astronaut and the first teacher in space.

With Americans reeling, Reagan scrapped his planned remarks and instead addressed the nation from the Oval Office. His remarks were short, compared to what his State of the Union would have been, but poignant and considered the gold standard of such speeches by those who wrote for presidents.

"The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives," Reagan said. "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"

Reagan was quoting from the poem, "High Flight," written by John Gillespie Magee, Jr, an aviator and poet who died serving in World War II.

Reagan wanted to comfort a shocked nation but he specifically wanted to speak to the nation's schoolchildren, many of whom were watching the shuttle launch live in their classrooms to see first teacher in space.

"And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons," Reagan said. "The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them."

Oklahoma City Bombing and Columbine Shootings: Key Moments in Clinton Presidency

President George W. Bush was never known for his oratory skills but he earned praise from the nation and pundits for remarks he made in the immediate wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Three days after the terrorist attacks, at a prayer service at the National Cathedral, Bush spoke about the heroes in New York, Washington and on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania and called upon the nation to stand together in a time of great sorrow and anger.

"It is said that adversity introduces us to ourselves. This is true of a nation as well. In this trial, we have been reminded, and the world has seen, that our fellow Americans are generous and kind, resourceful and brave," Bush said.

Later that day he delivered impromptu remarks that defined the early part of his presidency. Speaking to rescue workers on top of a pile of rubble at Ground Zero, Bush did exactly what several speechwriters say is critical in a time of crisis – bring the nation together and demonstrate leadership.

"I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you," Bush said to the workers. "And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."

The Oklahoma City bombing came at a pivotal point in President Bill Clinton's first term. Democrats were swept out of power on Capitol Hill just six months before that and Clinton found himself defending his relevancy. Some say that Clinton's public handling of the tragedy perhaps turned around his presidency.

At a memorial service in Oklahoma City just days after the bombing, Clinton focused on the victims –everyday Americans who were killed simply because they went to work that day.

"This terrible sin took the lives of our American family, innocent children in that building only because their parents were trying to be good parents as well as good workers; citizens in the building going about their daily business; and many there who served the rest of us, who worked to help the elderly and the disabled, who worked to support our farmers and our veterans, who worked to enforce our laws and to protect us," he said.

Clinton tried to connect the victims to their community. "For so many of you, they were also neighbors and friends. You saw them at church, or the PTA meetings, at the civic clubs or the ball park," he said. "You know them in ways that all the rest of America could not."

McGurn said that in times of tragedy, the president represents the nation and tells those affected that America is with them.

That was a key theme in Clinton's remarks in Oklahoma City.

"You have lost too much but you have not lost everything, and you have certainly not lost America, for we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes," Clinton said.

Another key moment in Clinton's presidency was the shooting massacre at Columbine High School on April 19, 1999.

A month after the shootings, which killed 12 students and one teacher, Clinton traveled to Littleton, Colo., to meet with victims' families and address students and the community.

"When America looks at Jefferson County, many of us see a community not very different from our own," Clinton said on May 20, 1999. "We know if this can happen here, it can happen anywhere."

Shesol wrote those words for Clinton. He said there was a concerted attempt for the president to "relieve the community of the burden of the singular guilt."

"This was Colorado's tragedy, but also the nation's tragedy," Shesol said.

Historian Douglas Brinkley said Obama can do something similar tonight in Tucson.

"President Obama doesn't want to isolate Arizona from the rest of the country as if there are 49 states and this is the loser state," Brinkley told ABC News. "He needs to tell people of Arizona thank you for caring, thank you for your love. It makes the people of Tucson feel special."

ABC News' Jake Tapper contributed to this report.