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Coping With National Tragedy: A Tale of Two Leaders

Submitted by on January 15, 2011 – 10:10 am2 Comments
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In response to the shootings which took place in Tucson, Arizona last Saturday, two political leaders struck two very different chords during the week as they publically addressed the nation. President Barack Obama received bipartisan recognition and praise for his speech at the memorial service for wounded Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords (D-AZ) and the six Americans slain during Saturday’s massacre. On the other hand, Tea Party darling and former governor, Sarah Palin (R-AK) has come under criticism for the eight-minute video she released the morning of the memorial service.

For politicians, national tragedy gives them the rare opportunity to speak above their political positions and beyond the power of their office. This can be especially hard in a country so politically divided where at any one time half the country disagrees with you on a number of issues. But from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to Roosevelt’s speech after the bombing of Hiroshima, to Bobby Kennedy’s call for equality after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a leader’s ability to heal and inspire all Americans can define how they will be remembered, not as only a leader, but as a transformative and unifying force.

Sarah Palin chose to go the other way. In an eight-minute video, she defended herself against the criticism she received immediately after the Arizona shootings for her part in the rise of gun talk in politics. To be fair, there is no evidence linking the shooter with any prompts Sarah Palin may have put forth. However, in a time where there seems to be a national calling for a more civil discourse, she was drastically off-key and out of step, using ill-advised and antisemitic words like “blood libel” to describe criticism aimed at her.

“Blood libel” refers to a false accusation or claim that Jews murder children to use their blood in certain aspects of their religious holidays, traditions, and even meals.

For any leader on the right or left, now was not the time to become defensive. She had an opportunity to be seen as a leader who could speak to all Americans, not just her base and Tea Party Americans. But that’s exactly what she did, making the tragedy about her persecution and the condemnation of right-wing political tactics, not the horrors of Saturday’s events. She came across as petty, doing even more damage to her political, non-presidential future.

Her loyal followers will love this very typical response. But she may have just shown herself to swing voters and independents as too ill-mannered, historically ignorant, and insensitive to be seen as a real presidential prospect. She may win the Republican primary, but being on the record talking about oneself while the same congresswoman who warned against your weapons-filled rhetoric fights for survival from a gun shot wound may be that proverbial straw on the backs of serious voters.

The president, however, responded with a heart warming, apolitical speech aimed at comforting a hurting nation and offering hope for the future.  He began: “I have come here tonight as an American who, like all Americans, kneels to pray with you today and will stand by you tomorrow.”

The president spent a good amount of time focusing on the victims and their families, the heroes who responded, and what we all can do to honor the fallen. He became noticeably choked up when talking about the youngest victim, 9-year-old Christina Green, seemingly with thoughts of his two young daughters.

Although he stayed away from politics, he did address the ongoing debate on the state of political vitriol. He didn’t look back or blame conservatives for the uptick in violent rhetoric. Instead he tied it in with moving forward from the tragedy and becoming better Americans, stating:

“If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate—as it should—let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is 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 them proud.”

In his closing remarks he offered the kind of hope the promise of his presidency so often spoke of. Channeling the political curiosity of young Christina Green, he went on to exclaim,  “I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us—we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”

These are remarks anyone and everyone—regardless of political party, bend, or affiliation—can get behind. Well said Mr. President. Well said.

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