Americans, it often seems, are united only in sports and mourning. National tragedies, especially ones wrought by human hands, make them defiant, determined and – for a moment, anyway – undivided in grief.
But as collective traumas go, the slaughter of six civic-minded Arizonans and near-fatal wounding of their congresswoman by a disturbed gunman is no 9/11. It would be naive to think that, beyond the initial shock, Americans and their politicians would behave as if it were.
Even Barack Obama, among the more decent and dignified practitioners of his craft, is not above political calculation in choosing how to respond to the tragedy – if only to disarm his critics.
Indeed, as he heads to Tucson to attend a memorial service for the victims of Saturday’s shooting, the President is under intense pressure to find the right tone to soothe the national psyche. At the very least, he must ensure he does neither himself nor the country any harm.
“It certainly has the ability to redirect the presidency,” Rutgers University political science professor Ross Baker insisted in an interview. “I don’t think that’s too strong a statement.”
To the rapidly accumulating parallels between the Obama and Clinton presidencies, Wednesday’s address may provide an opportunity to add another. With his adroit handling of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Bill Clinton launched his comeback after a devastating Democratic defeat in midterm elections held the previous fall.
If serving as the “national grief therapist” is a role that came naturally to Mr. Clinton, however, it is the one to which the current President often seems least inclined.
Mr. Obama’s address Wednesday night, at a service to be held in the University of Arizona’s 14,000-seat basketball arena, gives him “an opportunity to climb down from the loftiness of his speeches, which are high-minded but a bit cold,” Prof. Baker said.
Thomas Volgy, a University of Arizona political science professor and a former mayor of Tucson, added in an e-mail: “We need to mourn, to heal, to try to make sense of all of this … the President's coming is hopefully one strong step in that direction.”
White House handlers are no doubt reviewing Mr. Clinton’s approach in the days following the bombing of a federal office building by anti-government extremist Timothy McVeigh. The explosion killed 168 people and wounded almost 700 others.
At a nationally televised memorial service four days after the attack, Mr. Clinton struck a unifying tone: “You have lost too much, but you have not lost everything. And you have certainly not lost America, for we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes.”
But only two days later, Mr. Clinton began strategically using the Oklahoma attack to criticize the right-wing talk-radio personalities, and by association their favoured Republicans, who had worked to turn public opinion against him.
“We hear so many loud and angry voices in America today whose sole goal seems to be to try to keep some people as paranoid as possible and the rest of us all torn up and upset with each other,” he told a crowd in Minneapolis. “They spread hate. They leave the impression, by their very words, that violence is acceptable.”
Conservative pundits are persuaded that Democrats and the White House now plan to exploit the Tucson tragedy to discredit the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives and boost Mr. Obama’s fortunes. They cite an unnamed “veteran Democratic operative” who told Politico, the online newspaper, that the White House needs “to deftly pin this on the Tea Partiers.”
Ascribing blame for the Tucson massacre to anyone other than the accused shooter is a tougher task, however, than linking Mr. McVeigh’s attack to climate of anti-government rhetoric that prevailed during the early days of the Clinton presidency. And there is as yet little indication that Mr. Obama will try to do so, even indirectly.
That has not stopped the conservative media and punditry from taking pre-emptive measures, highlighting the past use of gun and military metaphors by the President and Democrats. “Why the violent last name, congressman?” Fox News host Glenn Back derisively asked of Democrat Louise Slaughter, who this week called on federal regulators to pursue TV hosts and bloggers who incite violence.
Radio host Rush Limbaugh, who was one of the objects of Mr. Clinton’s 1995 criticisms, also weighed in: “Republicans had nothing to do with the bombing at Oklahoma City, but it was seen as a political opportunity for Bill Clinton. This is now the same template.”
So far, members of Congress on both side have been restrained and respectful in their comments regarding the Tucson shooting and its origins. They, perhaps more than anyone, can identify with the tragedy.