Updated at 7:47 a.m. on January 13.
Strip away some language that bordered on lecture, and the discordant hoots and whistles of a charged-up college crowd, and President Obama’s message to U.S. leaders Wednesday night boiled down to those two simple words.
Be worthy of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, one of six victims of Saturday’s mass slaying in Arizona. Be worthy of those who tried to save the fallen. Be worthy, really, of a weary American public that is too accustomed to leaders who fail them.
“Rather than point fingers or assigning blame,” Obama said in one of the most important speeches of his presidency, “let us use this occasion to expand our moral imagination, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and to remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.”
By making Green the focal point of his address, Obama safely sided with the better angels of our nature without wading directly into the debate over whether overheated political rhetoric led Jared Lee Loughner to shoot Rep. Gabriele Giffords and those who attended her meeting with constituents outside a Tucson supermarket.
“At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized -- at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do -- it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
His speech came a few hours after potential GOP rival Sarah Palin called for national healing even as she accused the media of “blood libel” for suggesting links between the harsh rhetoric of the last campaign and outburst of violence in Tucson.
Obama said Americans had good reason -- even a responsibility -- to explore the motivations for the killing and what might be done to prevent future tragedies. He mentioned the merits of gun-safety laws and the adequacy of the U.S. mental health system.
“But what we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another,” Obama said.
“Bad things happen,” he added, “and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.”
He spoke at length about the victims and those who tried to save them, an effective device to connect with Americans on a gut level. His professorial style tends, at times, to make the rhetorically gifted president appear less than empathetic.
Indeed, this speech is unlikely to be considered as emotionally powerful as Bill Clinton’s address at the prayer service following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 or George W. Bush’s post-9/11 addresses in 2001. And Obama is not assured the political goodwill that flowed to Clinton and Bush in the aftermath of their mourner-in-chief turns.
But he made a play for Americans' hearts and minds when he spoke of the potential wasted in the slayings of so many good people, particularly of Green, the girl born on 9/11.
“If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we lost,” Obama said. “Let’s make sure it’s not the usual plane of politics and point-scoring that drifts away with the next news cycle.”
“In Christina,” he said, “we see all of our children.” Children who deserve our love. Who deserve the best in their leaders. Children, he said, "so deserving of our good example.”