Tragedies have a way of bringing out the best in some and the worst in others. When I first learned of the attack made on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords last weekend, memory carried me back to a tragic day in San Francisco in the fall of 1978. That was when former city supervisor Dan White entered the majestic City Hall, through a side window, and assassinated Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk.
It fell to Dianne Feinstein, the 45 year-old president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisor (and a former primary opponent of Moscone’s) to make a most unconventional announcement. “As President of the Board of Supervisors,” she said, “it's my duty to make this announcement. Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed. The suspect is Supervisor Dan White." Feinstein’s calm delivery of a ghastly message, her “just the facts, Ma'am” demeanor, and her subsequent actions as the city’s new mayor, established for her a reputation for common sense centralism that has characterized her ever since.
For the last several days, I have wondered whether anyone would rise above the shock and sadness of the moment and the ongoing slugfests on cable television, where left and right seek to attribute the tragedy to the rhetoric of each other’s spokesmen, to play the Feinstein role. A few came to the fore.
One was Arizona’s Republican Governor, Jan Brewer. Herself the victim of great personal vilification at the hands of those who oppose her efforts to compel the federal government to enforce existing immigration laws, Brewer spoke of the warm friendship she enjoyed with the Democratic Congresswoman when the two served together in the Arizona State House. She showed herself capable of rising above partisanship when she graciously and very publicly thanked President Barack Obama for helping her state “heal.”
Speaker John Boehner also rose to the occasion, and rather well. Mocked by the many in the media and late night comics for his often-demonstrated capacity to cry, Boehner too found his voice by merely being himself. “Our hearts are broken, he said, "but our spirit is not.” He made no effort to hold back the tears. Nor was there a need. The video footage that captured Boehner joking with Giffords after he had sworn her in at the start of the Congressional session captured the speaker’s jovial nature generosity. (As Ronald Reagan once observed, “cameras do not lie.”)
President Obama did not disappoint, even if his team cannot tell the difference in tone between memorial services and political rallies. Some weeks ago, when the president prepared to depart for Hawaii for the Christmas holiday, he and aides let slip that he had included among his reading material, Lou Cannon’s Ronald Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. For days, the press speculated whether Obama would look in it for cues as to how to work with a House of Representatives the other party controlled politically.
Thus far, it would appear that Obama did indeed find a few pointers, but of a different kind. He obviously made his way to Reagan’s mastery of the part he came to play best, that of national healer. Many are comparing Obama’s Tucson speech to the tribute Reagan delivered in remembrance of those who perished aboard the Challenger--having “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.” (If only Obama possessed some of Reagan’s brevity.)
Obama's performance last night suggested that he delved deeper into other Reagan parallels the contemporary media either forgot about or never bothered to learn. No parallel was more striking than the manner in which the two presidents honored the heroic actions of ordinary Americans. In his first inaugural address Reagan proclaimed, "Those who say that we are in a time when there are no heroes just don't know where to look." In his second State of the Union address, Reagan singled out praise for Lenny Skutnik, the government employee who dove into the icy Potomac to rescue a woman after a passenger plane that went off course smacked into the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, D.C. Reagan invited Skutnik to sit in the House gallery beside Nancy Reagan as the president delivered the speech. At the appropriate time, Reagan singled Skutnikout for special praise. He would follow up in subsequent years by having other guests seated in the same section to receive future inspirational presidential plaudits. Reagan's more subtle point was that in times of travail, greatness springs from the souls of individuals.
Reagan’s spirit was much on hand in Tucson this week, especially when Barack Obama paid tribute to Gabrielle Giffords, the six who died during the shootings, and the heroic deeds of other “ordinary Americans” who prevented the tragedy from taking even more lives than it did. Obama’s challenge to his audience to “live up to our children’s expectations” is certain to become one of his most memorable lines of his presidency.
Intern Steven Hernandez, as the president said, over the intern’s objections, is certainly a genuine hero. This young man who kept Giffords alive until further help arrived is anything but “ordinary.” His recitation of the nation’s motto, “E Pluribus Unum” and declaration of national unity was delivered with power and authority. His remarks may have done more to heal many societal divides than anything any of the public officials had to say.
If all of these people rose to the occasion, two others shrank and in full public view. One was Tucson’s sheriff Clarence Dupnik. For days he spared no opportunity to blame the tragedy on the bigotry of citizens who pay his salary and whom he has sworn to protect. Even the presence of FBI Director Robert Mueller by his side proved an insufficient motivator for Dupnik to at least pretend to be anything more than a political hack.
Then there is Sarah Palin. She had the opportunity to play a positive role in the aftermath of the tragedy. Instead, she retreated to her bunker as her political enemies sought to attribute the events in Tucson to rhetoric she had used in the recent campaign. She then let that other voice of unity and compassion, Glenn Beck, read her statements over the air and do her talking for her. When she finally appeared on camera, Palin left the impression in the public mind that she believed that all that has been transpiring in the aftermath of the shooting in Tucson had all been about her. The curtain is going to come down on this long running play--and soon. And serious people with real things to say are about to enter the realm of presidential politics. [See photos of Sarah Palin and her family.]