During his speech at Wednesday night's memorial service at a University of Arizona gymnasium in Tucson, President Obama focused on those slain and injured in Saturday's shooting and urged the country to move toward civility in order to honor those killed. From the start, the president's tone was conciliatory. "There is nothing I can say that will fill the sudden hole torn in your hearts," he assured the crowd. "But know this: The hopes of the nation are here tonight."
Obama chose to focus on the shooting victims and the day's heroes, rather than the motives and machinations of the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner.
"Bad things happen, and we have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath. But what we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other," he said. "If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. ... We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that's entirely up to us."
One of the evening's most meaningful moments came when the president — with Gabrielle Giffords's husband, Mark Kelly, standing alongside First Lady Michelle Obama — revealed that the injured congresswoman had opened her eyes for the first time since the shooting. The crowd — made up of hundreds of students and local leaders — cheered wildly at the news.
Gabby opened her eyes. So I can tell you she knows we are here. She knows we love her and she knows that we will be rooting for her through what is undoubtedly going to be a difficult journey.
Obama only briefly touched on politics, noting that the deaths of Loughner's victims should be honored by a shift toward civil discourse:
The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better — to be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, it did not, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.
In particular, Obama was struck by the shooter's youngest victim, 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, who had just been elected to her first student council position when she went, last Saturday, to visit her congresswoman at a grocery store.
I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us — we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.
Pundits on both sides of the aisle seemed to approve of the president's speech. CNN senior political analyst David Gergen said that though the speech may have not transformed his presidency, it did serve to cool some of the current heightened political tensions. And Democratic strategist Paul Begala agreed that it was not a game-changing speech, but noted that it "helped reconnect him in a more human way. The best parts of that speech were when he spoke as a father, not as a president."
Even conservative critics at the National Review and The Weekly Standard lauded the president's words, though Washington Post political columnist and former speechwriter for George W. Bush Michael Gerson criticized the speech for being unfocused.
Politico noted the stark contrast with Sarah Palin's statement earlier that day:
In the span of a single news cycle, Republicans got a jarring reminder of two forces that could prevent them from retaking the presidency next year. At sunrise in the east on Wednesday, Sarah Palin demonstrated that she has little interest — or capacity — in moving beyond her brand of grievance-based politics. And at sundown in the west, Barack Obama reminded even his critics of his ability to rally disparate Americans around a message of reconciliation.
And what about Glenn Beck, perhaps the president's harshest critic? He said on Twitter last night:
"Friends tell me I will praise Obama tomorrow. Many hardcore friends say he was "their President" tonight.Wow.Good for him!I'll watch in AM."
Obama Calls for New Era of Civility in U.S. Politics [NYT]
President Obama speaks at memorial service; says Rep. Giffords opened her eyes for first time [NYP]
Barack Obama takes opportunity Sarah Palin missed [Politico]
This post has been updated with additional information.