Thursday, January 13, 2011

Reviewing Obama's Tuscon Speech

President Obama's touching address at the memorial service for the victims of the Tuscon shootings is winning rave bipartisan reviews from political analysts and speechwriting pros alike. 

You can find a good cross-section of (mostly) hosannas over at The Daily Beast, led by Gotham friend John Avlon, a former Giuliani speechwriter turned CNN pundit.  Avlon, an independent who has often disagreed with Obama, praised the president in this case for deftly rising above the partisan squabbling this tragedy has set off and tapping into our common humanity.
He defied the folks who thought that any mention of civility would be polarizing itself by taking on the partisan blame game directly from the increasingly familiar (and needed) perspective of the adult in the room: "At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized… it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”

But to my ears, the finest section of the speech came at the end, when the president came up with a novel spin on the obligatory nod to the Gettysburg Address at the heart of all eulogies: that we highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.

It returning to the life story of 9-year-old Christina Green, he largely sidestepped the ready-made metaphor of her birth on 9/11. Instead, he chose to focus on Christina’s budding enthusiasm for public service, which led her to run for student council and drew her to the congresswoman’s meet-and-greet that day:

“She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted,” the president said. “I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it.” And then the line that captured his passion as a president and a parent to a surge of applause: “All of us—we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”
It was particularly striking to see many of Obama's critics on the right note how the Democratic president hit almost all the right notes Wednesday night.  One of the most generous tributes came from another Gotham friend, Pete Wehner, a leading conservative speechwriter and commentator who has often been critical of Obama's rhetoric.  Writing on Commentary, Wehner called it one of Obama's best speeches as president.
The president resisted the temptation to offer simplistic explanations for the existence of evil or how to ameliorate grief. He used language that was at times elegant and evocative, including lines like these:

“Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.”

His use of Scripture was appropriate and effective. And the president used the occasion to essentially close an ugly and unfortunate chapter of this debate.

Last night in Tucson, Barack Obama resurrected the best qualities from his 2008 campaign. On a difficult occasion, he showed grace and reminded us of the power of words to unify and uplift. More than at any other point in his presidency, Mr. Obama was president of all the people and spoke beautifully for them.
UPDATE: Another review we came across that is worth checking out comes courtesy of Bob Lehrman, a former Al Gore speechwriter and co-founder of Punditwire, over on Ragan, who rated Obama's address "an immensely skillful speech, written, delivered, and orchestrated with equal skill."

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