Aside from the length of the speech—half an hour rather than the usual five minutes or less—something else made President Obama’s remarks at the raucous Tucson memorial service different from every other presidential speech in times of tragedy. If you look as far back as President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, or President Roosevelt’s address immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or President Clinton’s remarks at the prayer service following the Oklahoma City bombing, or President Bush’s addresses to the nation on 9/11 and after the Virginia Tech shooting, most presidents do not name the victims who died—much less tell their stories. President Reagan’s brilliant speech after the Challenger disaster did name the seven astronauts killed, but didn’t tell us much about them.
But telling a good story—to me, the heart of great speechwriting and the highlight of a good Irish wake—can be very effective in times of tragedy. Here’s why: A story of human greatness amidst the darkness can bring hope and comfort to the survivors. And in a divisive, volatile situation, especially in the wake of violence, it can bring unity. As the president pointed out, even if we didn’t know each of the victims personally, “surely we see ourselves in them,” or see our husbands and wives, sons and daughters. When that happens, we tend to place ourselves in the story and wonder what we would have done. The right story can build common ground, shared experience, and admiration. [Photo Gallery: Gabrielle Giffords Shooting in Arizona.]
A great example would be President George H.W. Bush’s 1992 speech on the night of the Los Angeles riots, following the verdict in the Rodney King case. The president wrote much of the speech himself. Americans were shocked at the verdict, and then even more shocked to watch mayhem erupt on the streets. Earlier in the day, a local traffic chopper broadcast live shots of an eighteen-wheeler stopped at an intersection in L.A., whose white driver was pulled from the cab by an angry African-American mob and nearly beaten to death with a chunk of concrete. Four black good Samaritans—some of whom were watching the situation unfold on television and had come out of their houses—helped the driver get back into the cab and start driving. “But his eyes were swollen shut,” President Bush described from the Oval Office. “The woman asked him if he could see. He answered, ‘No.’ She said, ‘Then I will be your eyes.’ Together, those four people braved the mob and drove that truck driver to the hospital.” Reginald Denny survived, despite having his skull reportedly fractured in 91 places. A great story, and it served to put Americans on the side of the good Samaritans—not deranged criminals—just as President Obama’s stories did in Tucson.
Similarly, President Bush was under pressure from some in the White House to give a speech on race relations, just as President Obama was on civility in politics. Both presidents wisely chose to tell a story to further their point about the inherent greatness of the American people—rather than lecturing. In both situations, people had to decide: Am I rooting for the heroes here, or am I part of the angry mob? I’ve got to choose which side of the story I’m on. Am I part of the solution or am I part of the problem? [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
Then as now, the pendulum started to swing back toward civility. There’s a reason we’ve stopped hearing from the Pima County sheriff about his views on conservatives: Most Americans don’t want to hear any more incivility, and I suspect there will be a political price to pay for those who continue. Yesterday’s USA Today poll showed that a majority of Americans “reject the idea that inflammatory political language by conservatives should be part of the debate about the forces behind the Arizona shooting.” In Tucson, the president subtly put an end to the debate that most Americans had already moved past with three small words: “It did not.” And as long as there are more stories at more victims’ funerals over the next week, Americans will continue to remember the president’s closing words about living up to the example we should be setting. They don’t want to be on the wrong side of the story. They want to be on the side of the good Samaritans.
The State of the Union address is only ten days from now, and the president would be wise to continue to call upon what’s best in Americans as we set upon the difficult work ahead in reducing the deficit. Here’s an idea: The president should endorse all of the recommendations of the bipartisan deficit commission—while acknowledging that no one agrees with all the proposals—and call on lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to work together to solve the problem. It would work beautifully with his themes of shared sacrifice and common ground, and continue the story of Christina Green that he began this week, the one where “all of us ... should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.” Nowhere is that more important than in refusing to mortgage our children’s futures to a lifetime of debt.