Together, Obama and Bush seek national unity in Dallas

Shootings of police and black men have highlighted the uneasy intersection of race and law enforcement. But in Dallas Tuesday, both Presidents Obama and Bush will stand together. 

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Obama arrives aboard Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, Sunday after cutting short a trip to Poland and Spain because of the recent shooting deaths of police in Dallas.

It is a ritual sadly familiar to President Obama: another mass shooting, another trip to a distant city to memorialize the fallen. Sometimes the president delivers a eulogy in public, sometimes he comforts victims’ families only in private. Always, he plays the role of comforter-in-chief.

But Mr. Obama’s visit to Dallas on Tuesday, to speak at an interfaith memorial service for the five police officers slain last week by a sniper, will be different. Former President George W. Bush, who lives in Dallas, will also attend the service and deliver brief remarks, in a moment of national unity that transcends partisanship.

And Friday’s attack wasn’t just any mass shooting – it targeted law enforcement, resulting in the deadliest attack for police officers since 9/11 and bringing the uneasy intersection of race and policing to the fore. The five officers were white, the gunman a black Army veteran. The ambush took place at an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter rally to protest police killings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota.

In his speech, Obama’s task is to “find a point of transcendence – one that transcends both the Black Lives Matter movement and the police feeling that they’re under siege,” says Martin Medhurst, a professor of rhetoric and communication at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

“It’s not black lives, it’s not white lives, it’s all American lives,” says Professor Medhurst. “He’s going to have to make a speech that brings black and white America together under the banner of red, white, and blue.”

Mr. Bush’s presence is significant. Like Obama, he is attending the service at the invitation of Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, but will join Obama in visiting with victims’ families afterwards at the president’s invitation.

Bush and Obama

Bush, the last Republican president, has kept a low profile since leaving office, but has appeared with Obama in public a handful of times, including at other events centered on national unity – at ground zero in 2011 for the 10th anniversary of 9/11; in Tanzania in 2013 to commemorate the US Embassy bombing in 1998; and last year in Selma, Ala., for the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” a seminal moment of the civil rights era.

The attack by police on peaceful protesters in Selma spurred the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, whose reauthorization Bush signed in 2006. During his presidency, Bush focused on education as a way to help underserved populations. He also sought to expand the Republican Party’s reach into the black community, though with little success.

When Obama won the 2008 election, Bush expressed pride at being succeeded by the nation’s first black president.

"No matter how they cast their ballots, all Americans can be proud of the history that was made yesterday," said Bush on Nov. 5, 2008, calling Obama’s election "a triumph of the American story." 

But hopes that Obama’s election signaled the fading of America’s ugly racial legacy proved fleeting. Racial tensions have marked Obama’s presidency, as well as the campaign to succeed him. The Black Lives Matter protest movement, born of anger over the deaths of black people in incidents involving alleged racial profiling, has forced Obama to walk a fine line between addressing the concerns of African Americans and those of law enforcement.

Some law enforcement leaders have been highly critical of Obama, accusing him of  heightening racial tensions by encouraging Black Lives Matter and calling out police misconduct. One accused him of encouraging “a war on cops.” The shooter in Dallas acted alone and was not connected with Black Lives Matter. But last week’s shootings set Obama’s challenge in stark relief.

“This president’s role, and his unique quality, is to try to be reassuring and empathetic,” Marc Morial, head of the National Urban League, tells The New York Times. “To try to be healing, but also to try to understand the pain both of the families of the victims in Baton Rouge and Minnesota and the pain in Dallas.”

Ironically, Dallas has been a pioneer in efforts to improve police training, and become a model of police restraint

A chance to reenergize?

Still, Obama’s 2014 initiative to encourage best practices in law enforcement nationally, including an emphasis on community policing, needs to be “reenergized,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday.

The president met with law enforcement officials at the White House Monday and will do so again on Wednesday in an expanded session that also includes activists, academics, civil rights leaders, and local political leaders from across the country.

The goal, said Mr. Earnest, is “to further the dialogue and the identification of specific solutions to repairing the bonds of trust that have frayed in so many communities between law enforcement officials and the citizens that they’re sworn to serve and protect.”

On the eve of the national political conventions, and their potential as magnets for unrest, the issue could not be more urgent.

In Cleveland, host of the Republican National Convention beginning Monday, some citizens have taken peacemaking into their own hands. At 3 p.m. on Sunday, an effort to “circle the city with love” will kick off. The goal, say organizers, is to have thousands of people stand on Cleveland’s Hope Memorial Bridge for 30 minutes of silence.

"We were thinking about the state of affairs with all the politics and negativity that is going on, and we thought, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could circle the city with love?'” Rita Petruziello, a nun, told WKYC-TV in Cleveland. “I took that notion and I could not let it go." 

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