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The Consoler in Chief

It’s worth paying attention to President Barack Obama’s remarks at the Fort Hood memorial service on Tuesday, because they may have significant political impact.

Last modified: 10 Nov 2009 10:11
Photo by AFP

It’s worth paying attention to President Barack Obama’s remarks at the Fort Hood memorial service on Tuesday, because they may have significant political impact.

In the past, presidents have seized the opportunity of a shared moment of national shock or grief to strengthen their role as a leader and unifier.

RONALD REAGAN

President Ronald Reagan, who was a gifted orator and had great speechwriters, really rose to the occasion after the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. Millions of Americans—including many school kids—had watched the tragedy unfold live on television, and there was a deep feeling of trauma in the country.

Reagan’s brief, eulogistic Oval Office speech that evening was a tour de force—reassuring, consoling, with just the right amount of patriotic and religious touches. The president had many listeners in tears as he concluded, “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”

GEORGE H W BUSH

President George H W Bush was not a good speechmaker, and his awkward personal manner made him ill-suited to the task of expressing deep empathy.

Today the disaster aboard the battleship Iowa, in April 1989 is little-remembered. But at the time, the inexplicable deaths of 47 mostly young sailors in an extremely violent explosion that ripped through the ship’s 16-inch number 2 gun turret horrified the entire country.

I remember being at the Norfolk Naval Station for the memorial service. Bush’s words were unremarkable. More memorable was Bush’s inappropriate expression as he greeted and hugged family members of the dead sailors: a fixed, uncomfortable grin, betraying Bush’s New Englander inability to express emotion.

BILL CLINTON

President Bill Clinton was in deep political trouble in April, 1995. He was considered something of a lightweight; his Administration was seen as bumbling and incompetent. Opposition Republicans had taken control of Congress and were fighting the President at every turn, on every issue. Republicans railed against the federal government as the root of all evil. The country was (as now) deeply divided.

Then on April 19th, the bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City by a right-wing anti-government terrorist killed 168 people and absolutely horrified the country. People didn’t know whether it was the first strike of an outburst of terror attacks or a one-off incident. Clinton marched determinedly into the White House briefing room with some hand-written remarks (pdf).

“It was an act of cowardice, and it was evil. The United States will not tolerate it,” Clinton declared. “And I will not allow the people of this country to be intimidated by evil cowards.”

There was real steel in Clinton’s voice. Many analysts say that was the day Clinton really rose to the stature of national leader. It boosted his approval ratings and hamstrung the far right, which was tarnished by association with violence.

GEORGE W BUSH

The attacks of 9/11 plunged the country into shock horror and rage. At first, President George Bush’s response was faltering. He gave a “deer-in-the-headlights” speech from the White House on the evening of the attacks. On September 12th, Bush spoke about the battle between good and evil in scripted remarks following a Cabinet meeting. The next day, he became emotional—appearing near tears—while speaking about the attacks to reporters in the Oval Office.

It was not until his visit to the wreckage of the World Trade Center on September 14th that Bush seemed to find his footing. Grabbing a bullhorn, Bush yelled to a group of firefighters, “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people -- and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”

A more formal speech about the attacks didn’t take place till September 20th, when Bush spoke to a joins session of Congress.

“Great harm has been done to us. We have suffered great loss,” Bush declared solemnly. “And in our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.” Congress erupted in cheers and applause. The country rallied around its president, and Bush’s approval ratings jumped to stratospheric levels.

Obama, of course, is one of the better speechmakers of recent decades, so the oratorical bar for his Fort Hood remarks is set quite high.

But for a President who has had difficulty convincing a substantial minority of Americans that he is a legitimate leader, it is an opportunity to live up to one of the roles of Chief Executive in the television age: that of Consoler in Chief.