Thursday, January 13, 2011

Leadership delivered: President Obama in Tuscon

Leadership is not so much about proclaiming oneself powerful or “in charge.” Those are hallmarks of our 15-minute celebrity culture. Rather, leadership commands your attention and calls you to action.

Such was the case in Arizona on Wednesday night, in a state where disdain for President Obama had been demonstrated in the voting booth and on college campus snubs. Yet in Tuscon, in the McKale Memorial Center t the University of Arizona, the audience remained riveted.
The audience at the University of Arizona's McKale Memorial Center
 reacts to President Obama. Photo courtesy Deirdre Hamill/Arizona Republic

It was an evening memorial that drew more than 25,000 to honor its fallen, encourage its wounded, and cheer the heroes that all arose from last Saturday’s horrible tragedy. And they were hungry for Obama’s words, for reassurance that they had the support of the nation in this dark hour. He did not disappoint.

Other speakers stirred emotions, particularly Dr. Carlos Gonzales, who offered an opening Native American blessing – and his own story, as a kid from the ‘hood who rose to attend and later teach at this same university, whose own son fights in the sands in the Middle East, and whose greatest wish was peace. And the crowd vigorously offered a standing ovation for one of its own, 20-year-old U of A intern Daniel Hernadez Jr., whose quick actions in the field are widely credited for saving the life of Giffords, whom early news reports had reported as killed at the scene.

But at the end of the day, the eyes of the audience, from the Arizona congressional delegation to the families of survivors and victims alike, were on the president. And he knocked it out of the park.

As Obama memorialized the six fallen, he spoke as if they were family friends and he was reminiscing at a neighborhood barbeque, not at a nationally televised healing session. Judge John Roll, Dorothy Morris, Dorwan Stoddard, Gabe Zimmerman, Phyllis Schneck and Christina Taylor Green – these were not just names in a news story. These were members of our family, “an American family 300 million strong,”  Obama said.

He described Roll with admiration, noting that he was on his way back from his daily trip to Mass, before he unwittingly met his fate. He chuckled when recalling Schneck, a transplant from New Jersey who quilted, often sewed both Giants and Jets insignias on gifts for friends. He praised Zimmerman’s passion for helping others, dying doing what he loved most. And so on.

The anecdotes coming from the president lightened the pain of the obvious, that these Americans, aged 9 to 79, were gunned down in a supermarket parking lot amid what should have been an uneventful constituent services day with a U.S. congresswoman.

He brought the house down in announcing that U.S. Rep. Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords opened her eyes earlier in the evening, for the first time since being gunned down in cold blood by what reports increasingly demonstrate to be a deranged individual. After being shot in the head at point blank range, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi referred to it as “miraculous.”

It was a moment fraught with emotionalism as the first lady reached out to grasp the hand of Giffords’ husband, Capt. Mark Kelly, who appeared to be shaking. When he stood to acknowledge the cheering crowd, it looked as if he was drawing on her strength as well as that of Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security and immediate past governor of Arizona.

But what Obama did brilliantly was place into greater context the nation’s responsibilities in light of this defining moment.

What we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.

And then he crystallized the moment and the climate with one juxtapositional challenge:

If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should,
let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost.

Finally. Words from a grown up. Not a whiner, like Sarah Palin, whose woe-is-me inflections poisoned any attempt at condolence or comfort, if that’s what her video message purported to offer. Not a politico like House Speaker John “Boo-Hoo” Boehner whose public tears spout almost on command, but who summoned few initially in light of this tragedy – or even the time to honor its victims. He opted out of a ride on Air Force One and the memorial because it conflicted with an RNC reception.  

Priorities, after all.

Prioritization wasn’t an issue for this president on this night. The crush of sentiment that rose in that Tuscon arena in response to Obama’s words at times even overpowered the president. On occasion, the event took on the cheerful optimism of a pep rally rather than the expected somber tones of a memorial service.

Then again, perhaps that was to be expected on a college campus, filled with young people and thousands of other Arizonans wanting to move beyond divisive debates about immigration, health care, war, birthers and other political ugliness. They yearned to arrive at the heart of the matter, how to reclaim community after a gunman snatched away that sense of security.  They wanted someone to tell them it would be alright, that they had the fortitude to go on, and that it would get better. That it could get better.

And that’s what Obama delivered, with conviction. Leadership defined, certainly not abdicated.