Search for renewal after Tucson tragedy: what Palin missed, what Obama got right

The idea that we can overcome our history and our baser instincts is the message great leaders send in times of tragedy and tension. It is the stuff of great speeches, and it is what President Obama gave the nation Wednesday night.

There are few areas liberals and conservatives see eye to eye when it comes to Barack Obama. But both supporters and detractors agree: The president gives a good speech.

In the past few years, as the economy floundered and the administration charged forward with legislation too liberal for the right and too conservative for the left, Mr. Obama’s speaking skills seemed superfluous. Americans wanted results, not rhetoric.

But Wednesday night’s memorial service for the victims of the Tucson massacre reminds us how vital it is that the nation’s leader can give an inspirational speech. Though the national discourse devolved into finger-pointing and accusations of “blood libel” in the days after the shooting, Obama chose a different course. He urged Americans to “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.”

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Politicians and pundits, take note. This is what leadership looks like.

Calls for renewal

In calling on Americans to better themselves and the nation, Obama joined a long line of national leaders who turned moments of tragedy into opportunities for renewal. In 1863, as he stood on the ground where 50,000 soldiers had died in three days fighting, Abraham Lincoln seized the opportunity to not only commemorate the dead but to challenge Americans to secure the freedom for which Union soldiers had given their lives.

In 1963, as black southerners faced fire hoses and murderous mobs in their march for equality, Martin Luther King, Jr. counseled them not to turn to violence. He instead insisted that civil rights activists “rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

And when Dr. King was killed in Memphis in 1968, Robert Kennedy took the stage in Indianapolis and told the crowd – and the country – that they faced a choice. They could feed their outrage and anger, pushing the nation toward more division and more hatred. Or they could follow the path King laid out for them and “replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand.”

That same choice between division and unity faces America in the wake of Tucson. Tune into any cable news channel and you’ll find plenty of people who’ve chosen the former, who have decided to feed the polarization in America.

Others have defended the status quo. In Sarah Palin’s statement released the morning of Obama’s speech, the former Alaska governor shrugged off accusations that her rhetoric had turned too violent, too heated. “When was it less heated?” she asked.

We are not slaves to our traditions

She’s right about that. Insults and violence have a long tradition in American politics. In 1800, a pro-John Adams newspaper wrote that a Jefferson victory meant “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

When Teddy Roosevelt ran for a third term in 1912, he called his opponent (and former vice-president) William Taft a “fathead” and a “puzzlewit,” while in Arkansas, one of Roosevelt’s supporters brained a Taft supporter with a can of tomatoes.

So yes, alluding to “Second Amendment” solutions to political problems (as Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle did last year) is in line with America’s political traditions. But what Ms. Palin missed is what Obama got right. We are not slaves to our traditions, nor destined to slog along forever on the low road because it’s the path our predecessors chose. We can do better.

That message – that we can overcome our history and our baser instincts – is the message great leaders send in times of tragedy and tension. It is the stuff of great speeches, and it is what Obama gave the nation Wednesday night.

Nicole Hemmer is a historian of American politics and media. She currently lectures at Manchester College, Indiana.

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