It has been impossible not to juxtapose, compare and rate the duelling responses of Barack Obama and Sarah Palin to the Tucson tragedy and the wrenching national conversation it has sparked.
If the President glowingly performed the role Americans expect of their leader in times of great duress, Ms. Palin became the post-Tucson face of the Republican Party by default. No other potential GOP presidential contender thought or sought to play the leader in the wake of the shooting that ended six lives and politics as usual across the nation.
Ms. Palin had no choice but to publicly address the allegations that her quarrelsome political style and gun metaphors contributed to the climate that led accused gunman Jared Loughner to commit a treacherous act of violence. After all, her reputation was being mercilessly impugned.
But Ms. Palin blew an opportunity to demonstrate that she is more than a one-tune wonder, with a range and register that rises beyond baiting and badgering. The eight-minute video she posted on Facebook on Wednesday had an undeniably presidential feel to it. But that served only to heighten fear among the GOP establishment that their hectorer-in-chief is serious about running for the party’s nomination in 2012.
Ms. Palin’s use of the term “blood libel” to decry journalists and pundits who wagged their finger at her was not the most problematic part of her address. Whether it betrayed insensitivity to Jews (of which wounded congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is one) or plain ignorance, the contentiousness of the phrase was lost on Americans outside the chattering classes.
Indeed, overall her words were a hit with the Tea Party, hard-right base she has cultivated, especially the ones she borrowed from Ronald Reagan: “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker.”
No, what was most bothersome about Ms. Palin’s Facebook posting was the us-versus-them tone of the whole thing. Instead of bringing Americans together in a time of great tragedy, she did the opposite. She could have answered her critics with grace. She chose rancour.
It showed that, in Ms. Palin’s Manichean world view, there is never a moment of truce.
Consider what her spokeswoman said on Thursday. “There has been an incredible increase in death threats against Gov. Palin since the tragedy in Arizona, since she's been accused of having the blood of those victims on her hands,” Rebecca Mansour, who is also Ms. Palin’s chief speechwriter, told USA Today. “When you start to accuse people of having the blood of innocent people on their hands, it incites violence.”
Not exactly healing words.
In a way, Mr. Obama had a much easier time of it. Unlike Ms. Palin, his past conduct had not been an issue in the debate that followed the shooting. He did not need to defend himself.
What he did need to do in his address at Wednesday’s memorial service in Tucson, before a crowd of more than 13,000, was meet expectations as the nation’s consoler-in-chief. He did so much more than that.
“He finally employed the symbolic power of the presidency and he did it perfectly,” is how “one of the nation’s top Republicans” described it to Politico, the Beltway online newspaper.
There were moments when Mr. Obama’s teleprompter tonality came through, when the President seemed to be simply reading the words he and his 30-year-old speechwriter, Cody Keenan, had settled on during 48 hours of back-and-forth brainstorming and editing. But mostly, the speech was reminiscent of the heights candidate Obama had once inspired Americans to reach for.
“Heroism is here … all around us, just waiting to be summoned, as it was on Saturday morning,” he said in paying tribute to those who rushed to subdue the gunman and comfort the wounded.
He called on Americans to expand their “moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen [their] instincts for empathy” as they exercise the hallmark of democracy – free speech.
“Not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy – it did not – but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make [Tucson’s victims] proud.”
Compare that to: “We will not be stopped from celebrating the greatness of our country and our foundational freedoms by those who mock its greatness by being intolerant of differing opinion and seeking to muzzle dissent with shrill cries of imagined insults.”
Only Ms. Palin (and presumably her husband Todd) know how serious she is about running for the Oval Office. But if she is, the first thing she needs to do is find speechwriters worthy of a potential president.