In the eight days since the deadly shootings in Arizona, the nation has been engulfed by a tidal wave of rhetoric and reaction, much of it unnecessary, ungracious, or unfortunate. But amid the flood of words, two voices have spoken with an uplifting decency and grace that should make them memorable long after the hue and cry of the past week has ended.
One of those voices was that of President Obama, whose remarks at the memorial service in Tucson Wednesday night were humane and eloquent, unmarred by the acrimony that has ricocheted back and forth in the political echo chamber. The president spoke movingly about each of the victims whose lives were cut short. He gratefully hailed by name those whose heroism and quick thinking prevented even more lives from being lost. And with no hint of self-interest or rationalization, he urged all Americans not to "use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other."
Obama is the leader of his party and an agile partisan combatant, and there are those who would have him make political hay out of the atrocity in Arizona. Within hours of the killings, Politico was quoting "one veteran Democratic operative" whose advice to the White House was to "deftly pin" the bloodshed in Tucson on the "overheated rhetoric" of conservative activists in the Tea Party.
But the president rose above such sentiments. "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."
Obama has been fairly criticized for many things, and many Americans will doubtless have more reasons to fault him as he gears up for re-election over the next two years. But unlike Bill Clinton after Oklahoma City, no one will be able to charge Obama with exploiting the massacre in Tucson for political gain. "More than at any other point in his presidency," wrote one of his fiercest critics, former George W. Bush aide Pete Wehner, following the memorial service, "Mr. Obama was president of all the people and spoke beautifully for them."