It was fortunate coincidence that President Barack Obama was able to begin his memorial speech Wednesday in Tucson with a bit of good news. Before he spoke to the memorial for the victims of Saturday’s shootings, the President announced, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had opened her eyes for the first time since her treatment for a gunshot to the head.
The news also resonated with Obama’s speech itself, which, thematically, was all about seeing and perception, as it placed the audience in the point of view of the shooting’s victims and heroes, enjoined them to see the world as they had, and tried to persuade a fractious country to change its perspective.
After several other speakers, in front of an often loudly-cheering crowd of tens of thousands, the President paid tribute to the heroes of the day, the members of the crowd who protected and shielded others during the shooting spree. (Indeed, he barely mentioned the shooter in the address.) But the speech also identified the victims as heroes, for having been shot while seeing their Congresswoman, performing an act of belief in their country and their government. They died or were injured, that is, in an uncynical act that many people might scoff at today: believing that there was a point in speaking to their elected officials and participating in civic life.
It was from this point that Obama transitioned to the larger, thematic message of his speech—pulling back, like a tracking camera, to his broader social point: that Americans should be inspired by the hope and noncynicism of the victims to engage each other more civilly and respectfully. In public as in private life, he said, deaths make you think not just about the departed—did you spend enough time with them, tell them that you love them—but about how you treat the living. While he rejected the idea that belligerent talk caused the shooting—”It did not,” he said plainly—he appealed to the unsettling feeling, in contrast to the civic-mindedness of the victims’ last act, that the public dialogue has soured, that we’ve forgotten how to speak to each other.
Obama, for his part, found a voice that often seemed lost since he became President and became enmeshed in the details of governing: a voice that appealed to our better selves, to commonalities and to hope. His style, sometimes clipped or distanced when talking policy, grew both more intimate and more sweeping as the speech went on, recalling high points of his 2008 campaign like his talk in Pennsylvania on race.
The emotional peak of the speech came when he talked about nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green and literally asked his listeners to try to see the world through her eyes. Obama heartbreakingly visualized something all parents have seen—a child’s perceptions opening to the larger world:
Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.
The speech showed us Christina’s eyes opening, just before they were shut. Obama added, “I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it.” And he then ad libbed perhaps the best thing he has said as President: “I want America to be as good as she imagined it.”
It was—after mixed public performances in situations like the gulf oil spill—a moving and effective TV speech, one that finally connected the Obama of the Oval Office to the Obama of the campaign trail: a leader who could not just set policy but show empathy.
No one worked any miracles tonight. Gabrielle Giffords may have opened her eyes, but she’s still struggling in the hospital. And America’s dialogue is not going to soften overnight; after the speech, pundits on the cable networks and online began discussing the political implications of the speech, comparing it in tone with Sarah Palin’s and critiquing the boisterous response of the Arizona crowd (as well as the T-shirts produced for the rally).
But it was a moment: a moment to cut through the fog of punditry, open our eyes a little and see one another as decent people with decent intentions. If our perspectives go back to what they were tomorrow, next week, next month—at least we got a glimpse.