My favorite presidential historian, Robert Dallek, as well as anyone has, caught the essence of last night’s remarkable speech in Tucson by Barack Obama.
“The president is not just the prime minister, he’s also the king,” says Dallek. “And he has to be a healing force to speak to the grief.”
As a time when pundits, critics and pretenders to the Oval Office were wondering whether Obama had the right stuff to pull off a unifying speech in the wake of the Tucson tragedy, he came up with, I think, just the right tone and several great lines, including this one:
“What we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another.”
TIME magazine has a great take on the demanding, delicate job of the President as Consoler-in-Chief. While it may be hard to make the case that any one speech from any one president really has lasting impact in this superheated media age, think of the lasting impact of Lincoln at Gettysburg, Reagan after the Challenger disaster or Clinton after the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.
A pitch-perfect, heartfelt speech of mourning, as each of those were, has historically helped define a presidency. Obama’s speech at McKale Memorial Center in Tucson may prove to be the moment when the nation sized him up as a leader and not just as a politician.