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In his superb speech in Tucson Wednesday evening,
Barack Obama did great service to the nation. He put to rest the libel
that political incivility is responsible for the Tucson shootings. He
did so with three words that he added to the written text: “It did not.”
And he lifted the spirits not only of the inappropriately boisterous
audience in the McKale Center but of people across America when he
reported, after paying moving tribute to those who died, that “Gabby
opened her eyes for the first time.”
For even as we mourn those lost, we take comfort in knowing that the
target of the attack has survived and that she seems to be recovering
rapidly, even miraculously.
It is important for national morale that we foil the purposes of the
mad and evil persons who seek to assassinate our public officials. This
is something that was recognized almost 30 years ago, when Ronald Reagan
was struck by a bullet.
On the Senate floor, when notified that was Reagan still alive,
Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “I was glad to hear how well the president
is recovering, but there’s something larger at stake. I do not know
that in our time we have seen such a display. It makes us proud of our
For Moynihan, and for all Americans of a certain age in 1981, the
memory and national trauma of John F. Kennedy’s assassination was still
The American narrative up to that point was one in which the leaders
in our great and bloody struggles, visibly aging as they bore the
burdens of war, died at the moment of victory. Abraham Lincoln, his
haggard visage familiar from the photographs of Mathew Brady, struck
down by an assassin. Franklin Roosevelt, his health shattered and vigor
diminished, felled by a sudden cerebral hemorrhage.
They sacrificed all so that government of the people, by the people and for the people should prevail and advance.
Kennedy’s death, in contrast, came to a man seemingly still youthful
(his health problems were not widely known) and not at a moment of great
triumph after long adversity. It cast doubt on the idea that we were a
singularly blessed nation, with a mission to advance freedom and
Kennedy’s admirers painted him as the victim of a pathologically
violent society, of a culture of right-wing hatred in Dallas, though his
assassin was a communist sympathizer. As James Piereson has argued in
his brilliant book “Camelot and the Cultural Revolution,” this view
caused many Americans to think less of their society, with negative
repercussions that lasted for decades.
In the years that followed America fought a frustrating war in
Vietnam, faced urban riots and campus rebellions at home, dealt with
stagnant and inflationary economies, saw one president after another
leave office a shattered man.
The gallant recovery of Reagan, as Pat Moynihan instantly recognized,
revived American spirits and restored for many Americans the belief
that we are a blessed country, with a great heritage and great
responsibilities. The gallant recovery of Gabrielle Giffords, which we
all hope continues apace, may do much the same.
Reagan’s would-be assassin and the Tucson shooter acted out of mental
illness and delusion. Their actions were not evidence of any large
societal defect except perhaps a reluctance to confine and treat people
with profound mental disturbance.
Obama seems to understand this clearly. “When a tragedy like this
strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations–to try and
impose some order on the chaos and make sense out of that which seems
senseless,” he said in Tucson. But, he went on, “Scripture tells us that
there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen that defy
Obama first came to the favorable attention of the nation at the
Democratic National Convention in 2004 when he proclaimed that we were
not red states and blue states but red, white and blue America. After
months of partisan debate, in which he like others used the military
metaphors common in our political vocabulary, he spoke in Tucson as the
leader of one nation.
It will probably help him politically. But, more important, it will help the nation.
Michael Barone is a resident scholar at AEI.
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