Clearing the fog and gun smoke away from the latest scene of a mass shooting, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York turned up as America's truth-teller, like the honest man in ancient Athens for whom Diogenes went looking. Bloomberg, a political independent, was the only politician who angrily confronted the crisis with a clear solution: stricter gun control laws. He also challenged the contenders in the presidential race, President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney, to tell us what actions they'd take to prevent public slayings in the future.
Thank you for speaking on Sunday what so many Americans were feeling, Mayor Bloomberg. Face the Nation was, in a way, a national pulpit, with the avuncular CBS News show host Bob Schieffer looking darker and sadder than I've seen him.
Let's just say neither man running for president rose to the moment. They had nothing noteworthy to say to fellow Americans beyond banal boilerplate, and that's a shame. The shocking scene in Colorado was a test of leadership, for that's partly what presidents are for: to comfort us in times of loss with meaningful words.
Instead, President Obama said he and his wife Michelle would hug their two daughters closer that night. A fine sentiment, but not a reach for the rhetorical stars. Nor does it offer a prayer or a plan for change.
Here in Washington, we have no Marshal Matt Dillon to keep the peace and the National Rifle Association in check—or to tell it to get out of Dodge. Political courage will get you nowhere in this town, apparently. It's inadequate to simply say it's a "tragedy," because that leaves the people feeling helpless. (Talk to Peggy Noonan if you don't believe me.) It's also political code for something that can't—or won't—be prevented.
To return to the violent crime scene: The town of Aurora, Colo., close to Columbine, provided a "teachable moment" during the nation's grief after the gruesome midnight mass shooting when a young white man, James Holmes, snuffed out the lives of 12 people in a movie theater. But we're not here to discuss him and this new American way of death.
The main point is that every so often, a rare opportunity comes out of crisis to change minds and chart a new way forward for society. Or at least, a teachable moment can impart a way to frame and remember a wound or a loss so that it's easier to bear.
I remember, without looking it up on the Internet, President Bill Clinton's fury and promise after the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building in 1995. He said, simply, to the killers, "We will find you."
I remember, without looking it up on Google, what Prime Minister Tony Blair said to England and the world on the day Princess Diana died in 1997: "She was the people's princess."
And I remember, without looking it up, what Ronald Reagan said when the Challenger exploded in 1986: "They have touched the face of God," after a poem about an Irish airman. Noonan, a White House speechwriter then, helped to craft the words to get them just right.
George W. Bush, shaken up after the September 11 attacks in 2001, was woefully clumsy in his first remarks to the American public, referring to the 19 dead terrorists as "folks." I didn't have to look that up, either.
Two thousand years after Julius Caesar died by stabbing in the Roman Senate, we think we know what Mark Antony said, thanks to Shakespeare: "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears/I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him."
So you see, eloquence is remembered by the heart and mind. Then again, a lack of eloquence is remembered, too.