When disaster strikes, the nation turns to the White House, expecting their president to give voice to their grief, perspective for their shock, hope in their future. They want their president—not an anchorman—to try to make sense out of what seems senseless.
Not all presidents have risen to the occasion. Perhaps none in the television era lost more opportunities than Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson’s first opportunity came on his first day in office when he assumed leadership of a nation stunned by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Johnson’s introduction to the country was a 58-word statement in which he pledged, “I will do my best. That is all I can do.”
Five years later, the country was rocked by two assassinations within 60 days, as Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy were gunned down. After both shootings, Johnson was more the legislator-in-chief than what presidential scholar Stephen Hess calls “mourner-in-chief.” Johnson called on Congress to come back in session to approve legislation after King’s death and formed a commission and demanded gun control legislation after Kennedy’s.
Decades later, it fell to Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush to show how a president can mix solace, grief, and inspiration to rally a nation in the wake of blows to the national psyche.
For Reagan, it was the January 28, 1986, explosion of the space shuttle Challenger with its seven-person crew, that, memorably, included the first “teacher astronaut,” 37-year-old Christa McAuliffe. The flight lasted only 73 seconds and its breakup was witnessed live by a country watching on television.
That night, Reagan showed why he had been dubbed “the Great Communicator,” giving one of the best speeches of his two terms. He talked directly to “the school children of America.” He offered a ringing endorsement of the space program, saying, “Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.” And he spoke touchingly of the lives lost. “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.' "
Nine years later, it was Clinton’s turn to deal with shock after a domestic terrorist killed 168 people at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Clinton traveled to Oklahoma to speak to the nation. Like Reagan—and unlike Johnson—he spoke not of legislation but of how to honor the victims and how to go on with life.
The victims, he said, “were also neighbors and friends. You saw them at church or the PTA meetings, at the civic clubs, at the ball park.... We share your grief, your pain is unimaginable, and we know that. We cannot undo it. That is God’s work.”
Clinton knew the American people were angry, particularly at the murder of so many children. “The anger you feel is valid,” he said. “But you must not allow yourselves to be consumed by it.”
He pledged to work to “purge ourselves of the dark forces” that fomented the attack. That night he appeared on 60 Minutes to renew his pledge to capture and try anyone involved with the bombing. And he followed that up with a more comprehensive commencement address at Michigan State University. Clinton's speech was widely praised and helped improve his standing in the polls. Like Obama, Clinton had just come off a bruising midterm election.
Like Clinton’s speech in Oklahoma City, the voicing of grief is not always immediate by a president. Indeed, after the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush was largely absent from television as he jetted from one bunker to another. That evening, his address to the nation was less than memorable; Bush’s most eloquent expression came in a speech three days later at the National Cathedral.
Perhaps no speech by Bush was more pitch perfect than that speech, which was complemented later in the day when the president traveled to Ground Zero and gave voice atop the still-smoldering rubble to a national commitment to retaliate.
“It is said that adversity introduces us to ourselves,” he said, rallying a stunned populace. “This is true of a nation as well. In this trial, we have been reminded and the world has seen that our fellow Americans are generous and kind, resourceful and brave.”
To those who lost loved ones, he said, “I assure you, you are not alone.” To those who wondered about the next step, he said, “This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others; it will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing.”
Now, the challenge is to President Obama to offer solace after the Arizona shooting. The casualty count is lower than Oklahoma City and Ground Zero. But the shock is nonetheless real as a nation comes to grips with the previously unthinkable—that members of Congress can be targeted for assassination while mingling with constituents.
“This is a bring-us-together moment,” said Hess, who advised Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon. And it is the first test to see if Obama can fulfill that traditional role of a president.
“Both Reagan and Clinton were marvelously suited for it. They had a style that was very soothing,” said Hess. “But that hasn’t been Obama’s style.... As opposed to the campaign, he has been quite analytical, almost professorial, and, to that degree, a bit cold. This is one of those times when he can go back to the way we remembered him from the campaign.”
The opportunity for Obama, Hess said, is to basically turn into a speech what he has been doing since his party lost so badly in the November election. “Bringing us together, finding room for compromise, lowering one’s voice—this is a good opportunity for him to expand on that if he chooses to in a way that goes beyond politics.”
But Hess said that no one speech can heal the wounds and ease the pain. “Sometimes in this town we exaggerate how much you can do with a speech,” he said. “But symbols are important. And this is something that people expect a president to do.”