President Clinton, delivering an emotional eulogy for the 17 victims of the USS Cole Wednesday, showed the nation one of his most effective roles - and one increasingly important to the modern American presidency: national chaplain.
The president-as-pastor is as old as the office itself. Abraham Lincoln wrote deeply moving letters to Civil War widows, and speechwriters consider his Gettysburg address a model of how to move a nation from tragedy to rebirth.
But it is the television age, as well as the partisan nature of Washington, that makes this healing role a much more important - and visible - part of the presidency today.
"One of the ways that a president can still rise above the din of the moment, and truly be the president, is a moment of crisis," says Michael Waldman, former speechwriter to President Clinton.
That was clear yesterday, when Clinton addressed the mourners at Norfolk Naval Station, striking a balance between honoring the dead and vowing that there will be no safe haven for those who attack the United States. Before the service, he met with the victims' families and with the injured - who, despite being bedridden, insisted on attending the service.
Instinctively, the nation looks to the president when lives have been suddenly and inexplicably lost, be they astronauts, the victims in Oklahoma City, or, this week, a leading political figure like Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan.
The president's role, in such times, is more than that of parish eulogist. He has to speak specifically to the families, but also to the nation, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on presidential rhetoric. He has to honor those who have died, connect them to our national values, and take the country forward. "It is a rehearsal of basic values. It is a unifying rhetoric. It's a very difficult rhetoric to deliver," she says.
Indeed, experts list only two presidents in modern times who have been able to lead a grieving nation with consistent, exceptional eloquence: Ronald Reagan and Mr. Clinton.
President Reagan's address after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger was nothing less than "brilliant," says Ms. Jamieson. On that January day, the country - including many schoolchildren - watched the launch live, and witnessed that familiar plume terminate suddenly in a shocking ball of smoke.
The president, in televised remarks from the Oval Office, spoke directly to young viewers, explaining that the lost Challenger was part of the risks involved with exploration and discovery. But Jamieson points to his parting words as the most important:
"The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them - this morning, as they prepared for their journey, and waved goodbye, and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.' "
He succeeded, says Jamieson, in taking the tragic image that defined the moment, and replacing it with a higher message. "He displaced our memory of the shuttle exploding with our memory of them waving goodbye."
Reagan, however, did not write that speech. It was penned by his speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, who incidentally knew that Reagan was familiar with the World War II poem quoted at the end.
Still, who wrote it is not important, says Jamieson. The key was in the delivery: Reagan, whose acting career was so often ridiculed, effectively poured forth all the emotions the nation felt that day.
Other presidents haven't fared so well. President Truman was awkward at ceremony and symbolism. Reagan's successor, George Bush, once called his former boss for help when he had to preside over a memorial service for 47 young sailors who died in an accident on the USS Iowa. His tears were real, but his performance was strained. Later, he conceded, "the Bush family is not very good at that kind of thing."
Even in moments of great joy, Bush found it hard to connect in a meaningful way with the nation, says historian Carol Gelderman. When the Berlin Wall fell, Bush said the historic event "certainly conforms with the Helsinki final accords and is clearly a good development in terms of human rights."
But Clinton has carried on the Reagan tradition, and according to some, even exceeded it. "Reagan has been totally outclassed by Clinton," Ms. Gelderman says.
Like Reagan, Clinton has one defining eulogy: his remarks at the memorial service four days after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. His delivery touched so many, it gave the mired president a 12-point boost in the polls.
He honored the victims, and then sought to move the country beyond the numbing moment.
"To all my fellow Americans beyond this hall," he said, "one thing we owe those who have sacrificed is the duty to purge ourselves of the dark forces which gave rise to this evil." His words of comfort were strengthened by his promise of the next step - to crack down on terrorism.
But perhaps more so than Reagan, Clinton also devotes a lot of individual attention to those directly affected by tragedy.
Mr. Waldman, in his new book "POTUS Speaks," says the president spoke six times at services marking former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown's death. And, as he did in Norfolk, Va., yesterday, he often spends hours meeting with families before a service.
"He typically would spend a lot of time before the service meeting with each of the families, so that when he walks up on stage, he has not only the text in the folder in his hand, but he's accumulated the emotions of the previous few hours," said Waldman in an interview.
Clinton also gets involved in the writing, rewriting, and honing of his eulogies, says Waldman. When he spoke at the service honoring the two police officers who prevented a gunman from terrorizing the US Capitol, he sent his speechwriter a beautifully written paragraph to add to the speech.
"Clinton takes these speeches very seriously," says Waldman. "He understands their power."
It's a power, says Jamieson, that lets us experience for one moment our unity as a nation.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society