In an hour of crisis and grief, the president has to tell the country some hard truths about itself. As he does that, he must also explain what it's all about, this country called America, all over again. President Obama did just that, at about the halfway mark of the two terms he was elected to serve. He looked as if he had aged a few years in a day.
In his words, depth, and demeanor, Obama gave the best speech of his presidency by a country mile in a New England town Sunday evening. They say there are "no words" when you are swimming in salt tears over the loss of a child. But when a town's children are killed in cold blood, along with six women working at a school, well, there must be words for the blood. There must be words that try to tell the tragedy we have seen, for words are all we have.
The president is the only one who can do that—speak to the shattered people of Newtown, Conn., and to us, the American people, to make us one. We are all implicated; our society's fingerprints were all over that crime scene. So the truth is, we really need a talking-to about gun violence, a truth that few can speak and be heard. Thankfully, the president uttered words that went beyond the usual suspects at another mass shooting.
Speaking in sad cadences, Obama asked: "Can we say that we're truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? I've been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we're honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We're not doing enough, and we will have to change....We can't tolerate this anymore."
Here he shows how hard it is to ask and answer fundamental questions. Why were women and children brutally robbed of life and liberty Friday? Isn't the pursuit of happiness part of the meaning of this nation, formulated in a fine 1776 declaration?
Obama didn't spell out the broken promises, but there was no need. We're all in this together, a sense that we failed and there-but-for-the-grace-of-God. If we fail to protect our precious cargo of children, he was saying, nothing else matters very much. That struck a note of truth which resonated far beyond the boundaries of a place called Newtown, which they started building in 1780—four years following that fine declaration.
David Maraniss, the distinguished biographer of Obama and a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, believes the Newtown speech will live long in memory. "He [the president] defined a grave moment with simple and powerful thoughts that worked on several levels at once, both particular and universal," he said.
President Lincoln gave a stark speech about national loss at the midway of his four years as the Civil War president. He gave it in the autumnal light of November, consecrating a battlefield where the fury of cannons sounded and bloody bodies stained the farm soil for the first three days of July 1863.
Nobody knew better than he, the deaths and suffering were so great he had to heal with words as best he could, to infuse the event and sacrifice with solemn meaning. Theatrically, he set the time and scene: "Fourscore and seven years ago....We are met on a great battlefield of that war." Then came a short speech that magnificently transcended time and space to give a new fresh explanation for why they were there that day, what they were fighting for, and what it was all about.
For Lincoln, the Civil War had ceased to stand just for keeping the Southern states. As many of us recited in the Gettysburg Address as schoolchildren, the cause was "a new birth of freedom" in the nation. By a stroke of the pen, Lincoln had earlier emancipated all slaves in the "rebellion" states.
Maraniss said the Newtown address may be Obama's Gettysburg: "If we're honest with ourselves, the answer is no." That simple candor helped me deal with the shared sorrow. Better not to sugarcoat at a time like this.
Lighting darkness, healing heartbreak, finding meaning—it's a lot to ask of a president and his words. But on Sunday, the man from Illinois answered the call.