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the better angels

Heilemann on Obama’s Moral Challenge

In the time-honored custom in advance of any important presidential speech, Barack Obama's aides spent much of yesterday putting out vague word to reporters about what their boss intended to say at the nationally televised memorial service in Tucson, Arizona, last night. The address would be about the victims and survivors of the gruesome rampage that took place at Congresswoman Gabby Giffords's "Congress on Your Corner" event on Saturday. About paying respects, about healing, about bringing the country together. What it wouldn't be, Obama's people suggested, was a political exercise.

This seemed only right and proper, and was in line with the wise counsel of many veterans of previous administrations. A few hours before the speech, my friend Jeff Eller — a communications savant who worked in the Clinton White House and is now the vice chairman of Public Strategies, Inc. — offered a concise and compelling three-part formulation for what Obama had to do in Tucson: "mourn, console, and uplift."

The president, indeed, did all those things, at times simultaneously, as he grieved for and celebrated the lives of those who perished and praised the heroes of that day. (Though some media observers took offense to the rallylike atmosphere at McKale Memorial Auditorium at the University of Arizona, with the crowd often breaking into loud applause, one can only conclude that these tight-assed complainants have never been to an Irish wake.) Obama also broke some joyful news: Not long after his visit to Giffords in the hospital before the speech, she had opened her eyes for the first time. At which point, Michelle Obama, apparently in tears, turned and embraced Giffords's husband, Mark Kelly — a moving and cathartic sight.

But Obama did more than mourn, console, and uplift. He also issued a challenge — a challenge on behalf of those snuffed out by an assassin's bullets. "How can we honor the fallen?" he asked. "How can we be true to their memory?"

That Obama would argue that the answer lies in a new era of civility, sobriety, and mutual respect in our culture is about as surprising as the liberal quotations of scripture throughout the speech. Those are the touchstones of his politics. But by framing the challenge in the way he did — by focusing on the present and the future, and not the past — Obama was able to stride into political territory while avoiding a lethal trap.

Almost from the moment that the news of the shootings broke on Saturday, any hope vanished that the tragedy would occasion a pause in the vicious screaming match that now constitutes our national political conversation — as we rapidly descended into an all too familiar, but in this case especially toxic, cycle of partisan charges, countercharges, and metacharges. ("Now — on to the vitriol about the vitriol about the vitriol!" James Bennet, the editor in chief of The Atlantic, cheekily tweeted.)

Had Obama even remotely implied that tea-party rhetoric or other variants of right-wing crazy talk were somehow responsible for the shootings, he would only have accelerated this degenerate cycle. But instead, he trained his comments squarely on the furies that have raged in the days since the carnage — and in so doing, was able to make a more compelling and effective case for the need to slam on the brakes.

"At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized," Obama said, "it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds ... [W]hat 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."

It's a rare — and, to me at least, exhilarating — thing to hear a national political figure lay out a secular argument in explicitly moral terms. (And what other Democrat or Republican would feel comfortable making an open plea for the expansion of any aspect of our imaginations?) But this moral element was essential to Obama's argument that calming our political conversation isn't a luxury or an attempt to silence his opponents, but rather an obligation to the fallen. "If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost," he said. "And if ... their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s 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 our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud."

Whether Obama's speech will have any real long-run — or even short-run — effect on the dialogue is an open question. (I seriously doubt it, and even more seriously pray that I'll be proven wrong.) But its success in the moment was indisputable: With only rare exceptions, it was praised on both the left and the right, almost certainly at least in part because both heard in the president's words a coded admonition to the other. And the brilliance of it was that, in fact, neither the left nor the right is wrong.

Too much is made of the comparison between the Giffords calamity and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. But in one sense the parallel is apt. "Before Oklahoma City, Bill Clinton had been reduced to the leader of a faction," says the storied Democratic strategist and speechwriter Bob Shrum. "Afterwards, he looked like a president again." Something similar can now be said of Obama, and even something more. For the first time, really, he fused the symbolic power of the presidency with the promise not only of his campaign but the 2004 convention keynote that originally inspired so many to vest so much hope in him. He was, in short, Barack Obama again — and awful as the circumstances of his return may have been, it sure was good to see him.

Related: Obama Pays Tribute to Victims, Gives an Update on Giffords [Updated]

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Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images