Invoking the sunny idealism of a slain nine-year-old girl and the unlikely image of rain puddles in heaven?
It wasn’t textbook political rhetoric, but President Obama’s memorial address for the victims of gunman Jared Lee Loughner was the most powerful speech of his presidency.
My own political instinct in anticipation of Obama’s address was to write about how the 2012 campaign was beginning in earnest: To contrast Sarah Palin’s flag-draped, hearth-side chat (and accusations of “blood libel”) with the Democratic president’s man-in-the arena eulogy. And by the time the history of the next presidential campaign is written, we may very well recast these dueling speeches in that political frame. But as I sit here Wednesday night, I’m led in a different, less partisan, direction — by a president whose moral suasion I’d come to doubt. (After all, the last time Obama addressed the nation in a crisis, during the darkest moments of the BP oil spill last summer, he’d seemed cold, timid, out of his depth — a far cry from the electrifying politician of the 2008 campaign.)
Obama wasn’t in campaign mode in Arizona. He was better than that. The man criticized for his Vulcan detachment in governance suddenly found a deeper groove; with higher fidelity; and affecting compassion. It was as though Obama had finally found his voice — not as a politician but as president.
In confronting the evil of Loughner’s actions, the president asked us to aspire to the goodness of those senselessly gunned down in a Safeway parking lot. “If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate — as it should,” Obama said, “let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost.” Then, in a rhetorically risky move, he invoked the most innocent of the victims, nine year old Christina Taylor Green, to summon America’s better angels: “I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it,” Obama said. “All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”
Obama succeeded last night by using his pulpit not to bully, but to lead a polarized nation past finger pointing and toward a higher purpose.
Sure: It was good night for Obama, politically. But it was a better night, by far, for America.