In one sense, it’s hard for presidents to not to look presidential at a moment like this. In articulating what a president needs to say—vowing to catch the perpetrators, calling for national unity, heralding the first responders, mourning the victims, saluting the proud city where the wretched act took place—it may not be easy to find le mot juste, but it’s easy to come close.
The harder thing is one’s countenance in the days that follow. While George W. Bush and Bill Clinton dealt with thousands and scores of dead after 9/11 and Oklahoma City, Obama has a harder task even if there are fewer coffins generated by this act of murder.
Until someone is caught and the motives discerned, the country is left in a state of dismay and confusion. The president had to note on Tuesday that there was no suspect, let alone no arrest. "We don't know," he said.
The Kennedy assassination was a more jarring mark on the country than this. But in some sense this is like the Kennedy assassination in that no motive has been coughed up yet. Even though Lee Harvey Oswald was caught relatively quickly, his entire story went with him to the grave and we spent generations debating what drove him or even if he acted lone. Now we’re mired in uncertainty again until someone comes up with security-camera footage, a rental-car number, a telltale e-mail, or something else that exposes the killer.
For now, Obama contends with the uncertainty that comes when there's no arrest. The country quickly knew that Tim McVeigh was involved in Oklahoma City although it took some time to flesh out who aided him. McVeigh was arrested within an hour of the bombing by an officer who took him in for driving with no license plates or registration. It took longer to flesh out who may have helped him but the basic story line was known very quickly.
While it took a bit of time to parse out that it was al-Qaida and not another terrorist group responsible for the 9/11 attacks, it was suspected instantly by those in the know. Andrea Mitchell was reporting it within minutes of the second tower being struck. Bill Clinton has said he knew it was Bin Laden the minute he heard about the 9/11 attacks.
Oswald was booked at a Dallas police station less than 90 minutes after the slaying in Dealey Plaza and formally arraigned less than 12 hours after that.
After the first World Trade Center attack in February 1993, the first arrest followed six days later when Mohammad Salameh had rented the vehicle used in the attack was nabbed as he tried to get his $400 deposit back.
Until we have an arrest, we’re a nation of armchair theorists—would-be Jessica Chastains nursing our theories. Al-Qaida or al-Qaida-inspired loner? Antitax militia nut like McVeigh? Lefty lunatic? Or someone with a more personal beef with Boston or the marathon? We almost lost Ronald Reagan to a delusional young man who was trying to impress Jodie Foster, so who knows what we’re dealing with now. The brilliant FX series The Americans had a recent episode on the Reagan assassination attempt in which the KGB was convinced Alexander Haig didn't just misspeak when he said he was “in control,” but had actually launched a coup. We’re equally blind. More so, really.
And Obama has to soothe the anxieties of a confused country as well as lead the government. We now have a huge infrastructure and bureaucracy devoted to just such a moment, and since 9/11 it’s done well, catching an underwear bomber and letting all but the lone wolves go undetected. Can Obama show that he’s expressing our outrage, alleviating our confusion, and managing the government all at the same time?
There will be “Sit Room” meetings and teleconference calls. Visits to Boston and funerals and eulogies. The president will say the right words in the coming days but ultimately he has to deliver us a John Wilkes Booth, a Tim McVeigh, a head. He followed Bin Laden to the ends of the earth. He will begin such a task again, and hopefully with the same results.