Thursday, January 13, 2011

"Consoler in Chief"

Ever since television journalists began showing clips of Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and Bush's addressing the nation after three very different but distinctive tragic events took place, something nagged at the back of our minds.   "Why?"  Then the comparisons began and the speculations as to whether the speech that President Obama was to deliver at the Tucson Memorial would do for his presidency what it had for the former presidents.  Again, we asked, "Why?" Why have we Americans added the role of "Consoler in Chief" to our presidents?  Isn't the job of governing the nation enough? Most of all we asked, why should a speech meant to console and assuage the grief stricken  have political importance, and political impact?

First let us analyze each event separately.  When President Reagan addressed the nation regarding the Challenger's disaster, it was an unprecedented event.  Americans, including school children throughout the nation were horrified when on January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after lift off, killing all seven astronauts on board, including teacher Christa McAuliffe.  Few actually saw the actual disaster but within an hour of the event it was all anyone could talk about.  Space, the next frontier America wished to conquer, had delivered a devastating blow to the Space Program, NASA and most Americans.  It was such an unprecedented event that within a few hours after the disaster President Reagan addressed the nation from the Oval Office via radio and television.  There was no live audience.

On April 19, 1995 the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, in downtown Oklahoma City was blown up in the most horrific and devastating act of terrorism the United States had ever known.  One hundred and sixty eight persons died in the devastating blast, including nineteen children who were in a day care on the premises. Acres of land and neighboring buildings were damaged or destroyed.  Fortunately within hours of the explosion the person responsible for the attack was apprehended.    "Terror in the Heartland" the headlines read, and Americans were shocked that the attack had been perpetrated by Americans.  On April 23, 1995 President Bill Clinton, in a very solemn memorial service, addressed the crowd of mourners.  The attack had been a malicious protest against the United States Government and innocent Americans were victimized.  As the head of the United States government which had been attacked, President Clinton was there to reassure Oklahomans that all  of America supported them in their sorrow.

If Americans were shocked by domestic terrorism, it was simply unimaginable that our country would be attacked by foreigners.  Using American airplanes as weapons and sacrificing the lives of all the passengers, Muslim radicals carried off a nearly simultaneous attack on the Pentagon, a field in Pennsylvania, and the World Trade Center in New York City.  It was a vicious, deadly, overwhelmingly disastrous, assault against America on American soil, that shocked our nation to its very core.  Eight months into a new presidency, no one anticipated or was prepared for the toll that this act of malevolent aggression would have on the American spirit.  Nearly 3,000 Americans died in the combined attacks.  On September 14, 2001, President George W. Bush delivered what was called, "Remarks at the National Day of Prayer and Remembrances," at the National Episcopal Cathedral in Washington, D.C.  President Bush's speech not only attempted to bring comfort to those who grieved, but unity to a nation that would be forever scarred by the events of September 11, 2001.

Were those presidential appearances justified?  Were they necessary?  We believe they were.  They were three, very different, very tragic events that touched and impacted the entire nation.  We don't mean to minimize the tragedy in Tucson, Arizona.  It was a senseless attack by a madman who held a grudge against a Congresswoman.  The lives of those who lost loved ones on that day will be forever changed.  We've prayed for them and for their loss. We've prayed for the healing of the wounded.  But, last Saturday's events cannot compare with the other tragedies mentioned above.
After the Moment of Silence held on the steps of Congress, and all the interviews and official remarks made by legislators in Washington, including the President, was it necessary for him to appear at the McKeal Center?

As we asked the question "Why?" we feel that writer Phillip Terzian, of The Weekly Standard, came as close to giving us a satisfactory reply.  "Consoler in Chief,"  is this the role of the president?  We believe that every circumstance should be assessed differently. Each should be given its place in history.  The final decision will always rest with the President, but let us ask ourselves if this is a role we will expect of future presidents.

Is this the President's Role?
by Philip Terzian

President Obama’s speech in Tucson was fine, as far as it went. The protocol in such circumstances seems to require presidents to call for healing, unity, civility, fellowship, and a determination to move forward, as well as a shout-out to heroes and victims. The president appears to have done all this, and with generally satisfactory results; I leave it to others to debate whether he failed or succeeded.

What bothers me is not the substance of Barack Obama’s remarks but the very fact that the president was obliged to travel to Tucson to preside over this curious hybrid pep rally/memorial service. This is not unique to the Obama presidency, but a recent trend: The president as healer-in-chief, all-purpose master of ceremonies for televised events of national interest. I realize that a president is head of state as well as government, and that we have no royal family to dispatch for these purposes: To express the received wisdom on various subjects, to pass out honors, or to comfort the bereaved. But is this really something we should require presidents to do? It is now mandatory for commanders-in-chief to drop the reins of the executive branch and inspect natural disasters or man-made catastrophes, such as the shootings in Tucson, and behave to the satisfaction of public judgment.

I do not mean to gainsay the instincts of any president to commiserate with citizens in distress; and of course, there is political gain in successful political theater. But if people are concerned about an imperial presidency, or the overestimation of the ability of government to do things, they should be worried about the notion that presidents are expected to perform symbolic functions that have little to do with their constitutional duties.

One of the stranger criticisms of George W. Bush was that, as president, he failed to attend the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But while it is worth pointing out that none of his predecessors ever did such a thing—nor was expected to do so—it is telling that this should have been become an issue in our time. Theodore Roosevelt did not rush to San Francisco after the earthquake, and Franklin Roosevelt never presided over any commemorative event at Pearl Harbor. When the nuclear submarine Thresher disappeared in 1963, with the loss of 129 lives, John F. Kennedy issued an executive order lamenting the event. It is likely that if any of these presidents had chosen to inject themselves into public ceremonies, especially in a leading role, they would have been accused (and with reason) of seeking political gain at the nation’s loss.

Our expectations of presidents have clearly evolved: Not only do they preside over the executive branch of government, and serve as their party’s titular leader, but they fulfill a public role that is monarchical, not republican, in nature: Greeting the winners of the Super Bowl (or World Series or NBA championship or national football title or Olympic events), issuing federal honors (Medal of Freedom, Kennedy Center Honors) or official recognition, serving as mourner-in-chief at occasions of national bereavement.

This is both an imposition on any politician who is charged with the political leadership of the country, and an unaccustomed instinct for citizens of a republic. If we take satisfaction in a blessing from the President, whether to congratulate ourselves or to heal our wounds, we will expect White House absolution—benediction, affirmation, succor, and cures—as a matter of course.


At January 14, 2011 at 6:51 AM , Blogger Lynn said...

This is a very thoughtful and valid article. My husband said this whole thing was blown out of proportion and "became a 'national' issue" because a federal judge was killed and a there was an attempt to kill a congress person. Otherwise, this would have been yet another tragedy for a community in our land. Not to be miimized in any way, but rather 'localized.'

Good work sisters!

At January 14, 2011 at 7:56 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good article! I did not watch, purposely, as knew it would be all about Obama rather than the victims and their families. The behavior of those in attendance at the service, reprehensible, but then Obama could have controlled that to some degree by asking them to be quiet rather than encouraging the "pep rally" atmosphere alluded to in news reports. He, for sure, did "not let this crisis go to waste" as he was advised by Rahm Emmanuel.

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