Leading the nation in mourning has become an unfortunate but necessary part of the modern presidency, as Barack Obama has learned over the past four years.
Serving as comforter in chief, President Obama gave a moving tribute Sunday to the victims of the horrendous shootings in Newtown, Conn., and tried to use the occasion to restart the nation's debate over gun control.
"I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depth of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts," the president told families and friends of those who were killed. "I can only hope that it helps for you to know that you are not alone in your grief."
Obama said he would use "whatever power this office holds" to lead an effort to prevent similar tragedies from happening again. "What choice do we have?" he asked. "Are we really prepared to say that we're powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?"
But he didn't define his administration's response. Some political figures, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, are urging an all-out campaign to strengthen gun control laws. Twenty-six people, including six adults and 20 boys and girls, were killed by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday in an incident that shocked the nation and captured public attention around the world.
Compared to other presidents attempting to rally the nation and define tragic events in the past, Obama's remarks were more contemplative than dramatic. They were similar to his sorrowful comments after other incidents of national tragedy such as the shootings in Tucson, Ariz., that left six dead and 13 wounded, including U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, last year, and his reaction to the shootings in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater than that left 12 dead last summer.
Presidents have tried to be comforters in chief and definers of the national response to tragic events for many years.
One of the most memorable such moments came when President George W. Bush set a defiant tone three days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City. While visiting "Ground Zero," where two hijacked planes destroyed the World Trade Towers in lower Manhattan, Bush stood atop a burned-out fire truck and began to speak with a bullhorn when a rescue worker shouted, "I can't hear you."
Bush captured the national mood when he replied, " I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear from all of us soon."
I was among a small group of reporters who witnessed this event, which was spontaneous and set the nation on a path to what Bush called the "war on terrorism," which defined his presidency from then on.
In another historic moment, President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation after the explosion that killed seven Challenger space-shuttle astronauts on Jan. 28, 1986. Reagan preached perseverance and tried to lift the country's spirits.
He pledged to continue the space program and said, "The future doesn't belong to the faint-hearted. It belongs to the brave." He went on to movingly quote pilot John Magee Jr.'s poem, "High Flight," by noting that the astronauts "waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of Earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"
President Bill Clinton defined the nation's angry mood in his speech on April 19, 1995, just after a domestic terrorist bombing killed 168 people, including 19 children, at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. "The bombing in Oklahoma City was an attack on innocent children and defenseless citizens," Clinton said. "It was an act of cowardice and it was evil. The United States will not tolerate it, and I will not allow the people of this country to be intimidated by evil cowards."
- Gun Control Debate Reignited in the Wake of Connecticut School Massacre
- Congress Calls Connecticut Shooting 'Massacre,' 'Senseless Tragedy'
- How to Protect Yourself in a Mass Shooting
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He has written five books, most recently Family of Freedom: Presidents and African Americans in the White House. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook and Twitter.