For good or for bad, political legacies are often born from tragedies. For President Obama, this may have been his moment. At a time when the state of Arizona and the nation mourns those lost in the Tucson massacre and tries to make sense of Jared Loughner’s incomprehensible actions, the President, our President, stood up and offered a small slice of comfort to soothe a nation. By all accounts he succeeded.
In a political climate rife with fear, intimidation and violence, President Obama offered words of promise and put a name and a face to six senseless deaths. He offered words of guidance and sympathy, celebration and despair. Each victim remembered for what they offered most to this country and to their families. Each victim a reminder of the unspeakable evil humanity is capable of and each victim a call to the survivors to make sure their deaths were not in vain.
For those watching the event at times had the feel of a pep rally with a large crowd that cheered and whistled during the speeches. Pundits seized on this atmosphere and some even felt it necessary to criticize the crowd for those cheers, suggesting that the audience was somehow not grieving appropriately.
Let me take just a minute to address that criticism, for it echos criticism of another public memorial, and one that hit very close to my home.
Senator Paul Wellstone was in many ways the reason I moved to Minnesota and the reason I went into both the law and teaching. His passion and drive to serve his state and his country still serve as an inspiration. And when his plane went down on that cold October day, my adopted home state was never the same. I remember the day vividly because it was the day I was sworn in as an attorney in the state of Minnesota. Just after I took the oath, I got the call. Senator Wellstone had died.
The public memorial that followed was a raucous affair. The state was in shock. His supporters were grieving. Senator Wellstone was that rare breed of politician that personally touched lives and in that auditorium the reach of his influence was unmistakeable. The event not only celebrated his life, and the lives of his dear wife Sheila and other family and friends, but it became a call to action–a demand that his supporters “never park the bus.” And that night, at that memorial, that is exactly what we needed.
But that didn’t stop the critics from calling it a partisan travesty and for bashing those of us that in our deepest despair dug in to find a way out.
So to those who would criticize the cheering from the crowd at Tucson, I say stand down. Grief follows no script and has no manners. And this is not a time to spin nor a time to campaign. It is just a time to be.
And like our President said, the best we can do when faced with the unexplainable is to move forward and to not turn on one another. We should strive to be better in our private lives and in our public lives. To be better to each other. Simple and honest words so lacking in our current public discourse, but so necessary to hear.
Our president closed calling on Americans to live up to the expectations of the youngest victim, Christina Taylor Green, a young girl full of hope and ambition and belief that as Americans we are simply lucky to live in this country. He gave us his own sense of loss as he shared his wish for our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined. And as President Obama closed with an image of young Christina jumping in the rain puddles of heaven, a nation could come together and grieve and celebrate and hope and aspire again, even if only for a moment.
photo courtesy of Violentz via Flickr