Obama to Be Nation's Consoler at Memorial Service

Associated Press + More

WASHINGTON (AP) — Searching for unity out of tragedy, President Barack Obama will honor the victims of the Arizona mass shooting in personal terms and remind those in grief that an entire nation is with them. The president is again stepping into his role as national consoler, a test of leadership that comes with the job.

His mission at Wednesday's memorial is to uplift and rally, not to examine political incivility.

[Photo Gallery: Gabrielle Giffords Shooting in Arizona.]

Set to speak during an evening gathering in Tucson, Ariz., Obama will remember the six people killed in a point-blank assassination attempt against a congresswoman who had been meeting with constituents outside a grocery store. Remarkably, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is showing greater signs of recovery — including breathing on her own — just three days after a bullet shot through her brain.

The shootings have consumed national attention since the weekend. In total, 19 people were shot, six fatally. Others were injured trying to flee the shooting.

[Read more news about Gabrielle Giffords.]

Obama was crafting his speech Tuesday, and his aides were reluctant to discuss it even broadly in its unfinished form, other than to say it would emphasize the memories of those lost. Still, Obama's comments since the shooting Saturday and his experience dealing with other tragedies offer guidance.

His main mission will be to honor those who were killed by describing them in personal terms, so the country remembers how they lived, not how they died.

He will seek to assure families in grief that the whole country is behind them.

And to those grasping for answers, Obama will probably explore how "we can come together as a stronger nation" in the aftermath of the tragedy, as he put it earlier this week.

What the speech is not likely to be: an examination of divisive partisan rhetoric or whether it is connected in any way to the rampage. Those matters have soared to the forefront of media debate. But while addressing a grieving community, Obama is expected to focus on a memorial, not a commentary on politics.

This moment as chief consoler comes to all presidents — often many times. And this will not be Obama's first.

Among the events that people remember the most, recent history alone recalls George W. Bush with a bullhorn amid the rubble of Sept. 11, 2001; Bill Clinton's leadership after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995; and Ronald Reagan's response to the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, when he spoke about being "pained to the core."

For Obama, the most instructive lesson may be one from his own presidency.

He led the memorial at the Fort Hood, Texas, Army post in November 2009, trying to help a shaken nation cope with a mass shooting there that left 13 people dead and 29 wounded. He spent the first part of that speech naming the people who had been killed and describing how they spent their lives; he used the second half to remind everyone of American endurance and justice.

[See a slide show of photos from the Fort Hood shooting.]

In April 2010, Obama eulogized 29 coal workers killed in the worst mine accident in a generation. He said they lived as they died, pursuing the American dream.

Even before accepting the invitation to speak at the University of Arizona memorial service, Obama previewed his own approach.

"It's going to be important, I think, for the country as a whole, as well as the people of Arizona, to feel as if we are speaking directly to our sense of loss, but also speaking to our hopes for the future and how out of this tragedy we can come together as a stronger nation," the president said Tuesday. He will be attending with his wife, first lady Michelle Obama.

[See photos of Michelle Obama.]

The six people killed were attending a community outreach gathering sponsored by Giffords outside a grocery store. The six were Arizona's chief federal judge, a 30-year-old aide to Giffords, a 9-year-old girl and three retirees in their mid-to-late 70s.