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What Does a President Say When Hot Casings Fall?

The Challenge ahead for Obama after the Colorado tragedy.

President Obama delivers a statement at the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, Colo., on Sunday after visiting with both families of victims of Friday's movie-theater shooting and local officials. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is at left.(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

As we have learned in recent days, President Obama has found executive power sufficient to provide temporary work permits to children of illegal aliens, carve-outs from welfare reform work permits, and ways to shield low-income patients from the insurance mandate in states that don’t expand Medicad.

But what power does a president have to heal a woman who went to a movie, stared down the barrel of an assault rifle, hit the deck in panic, and felt the hot casings from bullets that killed fellow theatergoers rain down on her back? What actions? What words? What presidential sentiment or action is or can be a countervailing force to such homicidal malevolence?

The question requires humility in the answering and a sense of garish guilt in the raising. Especially when testimony like that of Jennifer Seeger, an eyewitness, spills forth.

 

“I was in the front row,” Seeger told Andrea Mitchell in a riveting interview on MSNBC. “I, literally, was four to five feet away from the man. He shot once at the ceiling and at that point everyone knew it was real. He took his gun from the ceiling and pointed it right at my face. All I did was dive forward … and just kind of duck and cover. He had shot people behind me, and the bullet casings were falling on my head and singeing my head. They were still hot."

The numb and disbelieving mind reels …. from the front row to the Oval Office. And everywhere in between.

But the media presidency and the therapeutic component that has grown up alongside the false intimacy most Americans now feel with their president places an acute burden on the commander in chief to take command of the nation’s psyche and make sense of nonsense. Violent nonsense.

Obama approached some of these rhetorical rock formations cautiously on Friday.

“We may never understand what leads anybody to terrorize their fellow human beings like this,” Obama said in remarks that shut down a scheduled campaign rally in Fort Myers, Fla. “Such violence, such evil is senseless. It's beyond reason. But while we will never know fully what causes somebody to take the life of another, we do know what makes life worth living.”

At one level, there is no adequate response, no healing rhetorical salve. Not for survivors of the dead and barely very much for those tending to the dumbstruck wounded. For those who mourn the dead, they have a lifetime ahead to yearn for what was lost--in Obama’s words, “hopes for the future” and “dreams that were not yet fulfilled.”

Presidents, at times like this, are summoned to coax America back to dreaming ahead. Even in the face of abject horror. Actually, especially in the face of abject horror.  It has been so since radio waves shattered time and space and gave the presidency an instantly and nationally available reach and resonance … if the president was up to it. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was, and it aided him immeasurably. Harry Truman wasn’t, and it sometimes cost him. In the television era, only John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton could deliver. In the aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities, George W. Bush rose to the occasion in ways no other president had in the face of civilian slaughter no president ever had to face.

It’s been 26 years since the Challenger disaster, 17 since the Oklahoma City bombing, and 13 years since the Columbine massacre. The shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., with six dead and 18 others wounded was a kind of mayhem that challenged Obama. Aurora will be bigger.

It’s an election year. The party conventions are less than two months away. Colorado is a swing state. Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney stop there like itinerant salesmen because, in certain respects, both are. But salesmanship won’t fly in Colorado now. Not for awhile. Possibly not until long after Election Day.

What will Obama say about gun control? He didn’t even mention that a gun was involved in today’s slaughter. Someone who didn’t know could, listening to Obama, imagine any kind of weapon--knives, poison gas, flamethrowers, or firearms. Obama said the crime was heinous and likened it to terror. But he never said a word about the firearms that pumped the hot casings into the dark theater and onto Jennifer Seeger’s head.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called out Obama and Romney on gun control.

“Maybe it's time that the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it, because this is obviously a problem across the country,"  Bloomberg said on WOR Radio in New York. 

There’s no indication that Obama will do that. First of all, the fact of suspect James Holmes’s firearms purchases are not yet publicly known. He apparently had no criminal record, and therefore no obvious flags would have been raised to prevent legal firearms purchases. Until all the facts are known, Obama won’t jump to risky political conclusions or take any conspicuous risks where access to firearms is concerned.

He didn’t after Giffords was shot, and every national Democrat since Al Gore, who toyed with gun-control advocacy in 2000, has internalized the risks of alienating those who either posses firearms or sympathize solidly with those who do.

As far as dealing with national emotions, Obama knows he has a few days before the memorial service is held. It is virtually certain that Obama will be invited and will attend. Obama’s a close, personal friend of Gov. John Hickenlooper, the former mayor of Denver who played host to Obama’s 2008 nominating convention and can be sure to help Obama navigate the jagged psychic cliffs of the Rocky Mountain state in the coming days.

Obama’s top speech writer, Jon Favreau, was coincidentally with the president in Florida. He doesn’t make all or even most of the campaign trips. They fashioned Obama’s remarks together on Friday and will surely combine on his next statement and the speech at the memorial. Together, the two have crafted all of Obama’s most important speeches. This will fall into that category, for all the most awful reasons.

The president began to frame what may become his overarching rhetorical theme in the aftermath of Aurora. In Fort Myers he said among the most important lessons to draw from the mayhem, death, and despair is this: “What matters at the end of the day is not the small things; it’s not the trivial things, which so often consume us and our daily lives. Ultimately, it’s how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another. “

There are those among Obama’s political opponents who believe of late that his reelection campaign has been about “small things,” such as Romney’s run as head of the private-equity firm Bain Capital, the number of tax returns Romney has produced, the purpose of a Swiss bank account or Bermuda corporation. Obama’s team thinks just the opposite--that each is a window into Romney’s character and economic priorities and instincts.                

If, in fact, Aurora can and should teach the nation to ignore “small” and “trivial things,” perhaps a subplot for both campaigns going forward will be their ability to speak more grandly and persuasively--not just about healing in the face of hot bullet casings cascading in a suburban movie theater, but the direction of this nation as a whole.

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