President Obama, Daniel Hernandez and a Tucson crowd remind us that e pluribus unum still makes sense
The event billed as a memorial service for victims of the Tucson, Ariz., massacre turned into what critics called a “pep rally,” with cheering and hooting and hollering crowds. I don’t understand what bothered people, because it was clear to me from the start: The University of Arizona crowd was celebrating the heroism that was on display last Saturday, when ordinary people became heroes and saved lives. And they were cheering the very idea of America.
There it was, folks, Saturday morning and again Wednesday night: our country, as good as it gets. Remember how great it looked and felt and sounded, when things inevitably get ugly again. Reagan-appointed Supreme Court Justice Sandra O’Connor, now retired, sat admiringly next to Daniel Hernandez Jr., the 20-year-old Gabrielle Giffords intern who helped save her life Saturday (who happens to be gay and Mexican American). Attorney General Eric Holder was side by side with Gov. Jan Brewer, whose racial profiling law he’s fighting. The service began with an Indian blessing from Dr. Carlos Gonzales, who described his mother as Mexican, his father as a Yaqui survivor of “genocide,” and his son as a soldier in Afghanistan, who praised “this great country, where a poor barrio kid from the south side of Tucson could get an education at a fine institution like the University of Arizona — and then, even better, come back and teach here.”
Like it or not, that’s American history: We are imperfect, descended from people who took land from Indians and Mexicans and who held slaves, but also from people who fought for equal rights for everyone, and who, over time, managed to create laws and values and customs that (mostly) do that. Daniel Hernandez began his speech with the words “e pluribus unum” — out of many, one — and even if it’s not an ideal we always live up to, it’s the best idea we’ve ever had as a nation. President Obama delivered what I think was his best speech ever, but for a while Wednesday night, Hernandez stole the show, reminding us “what defines us is not difference … we are all Americans,” and rejecting the label “hero,” since he said, “The real heroes are those who have dedicated their lives to public service.” Obama correctly differed with Hernandez, congratulating him as a hero for helping to save Giffords’ life.
The president’s speech was appropriately personal and moving, describing all of those who died, with vivid individual details, as well as the people who risked their lives saving the wounded. But he wrapped the speech around 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, and as the father of two young girls, Obama made that move feel more than rhetorical. Michelle Obama, often struggling with tears early in the event, wept openly as he discussed the child who wanted to be the first woman to play Major League Baseball (fittingly, as the granddaughter of managerial legend Dallas Green), who often remarked to her mother, “We have the best life,” who was just elected to student council, and who went out to see her local congresswoman, “who might have been a role model.” Giffords’ “Congress on the Corner” outside Safeway last Saturday “was just an updated version of ‘government by and of and for the people,” Obama said. “That quintessentially American scene, that was the scene that was shattered by a gunman’s bullets.”
The president’s speech was titled “Together we thrive: Tucson and America,” and I’ll admit I heard something political in that title, at a time when America seems more divided than ever, with voices of reaction demonizing Democrats more viciously than ever since Obama’s election. Obama himself resisted partisanship, making good on his oft-repeated promise to be the president of all of America, even the segment of the country that didn’t vote for him. He acknowledged the debate, since the Tuscon tragedy, over “what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future” and called it is “an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.” But he went on with a warning:
“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’re talking with each other in a way that heals, and not in a way that wounds….
What we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other. That we cannot do. That we cannot do. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility, rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame. Let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imagination…sharpen our instincts for empathy, remind us of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.
It’s almost exactly two years since Obama’s inauguration, a time when even people who didn’t vote for him seemed to rejoice in “all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.” One speech is unlikely to take us back to that time, but it’s a start. Oddly, some on the right and left were put off by the memorial’s upbeat vibe; echoing other conservatives, the National Review’s Rich Lowry tweeted: “the entire campaign-rally atmostphere is disconcerting,” just as the heavily Democratic crowd was applauding conservative GOP Gov. Jan Brewer. For a while the reaction was shaping up to be the kind of backlash conservatives inspired against Paul Wellstone’s funeral in 2002, until the president hit exactly the right tone. (Unbelievably, righties are now outraged over the fact that T-shirts were printed with the “Together we Thrive” message. If they’re admitting that’s Democratic messaging, they’re in worse shape than I thought.)
Now conservatives are reporting that Obama’s speech was meant to scold those on the left who have dared to discuss the fact that Giffords had confronted violence before her shooting: that someone dropped a gun at one of her town hall meetings, her office door was shattered after she voted for healthcare reform, and she herself told MSNBC that the cross-hairs imagery Sarah Palin used to target her might “have consequences.” Obama was brilliantly fair in his remarks, and I’ve reproduced the relevant section above, so people can decide for themselves if he was in fact pointing fingers as he urged us not to point fingers.
For what it’s worth, I talked about what I expected from Obama’s upcoming remarks on MSNBC’s “The Ed Show” earlier Wednesday, and I’m relieved I didn’t get it wrong.
UPDATE: This piece has been corrected after a transcription error left several words out of President Obama’s quote about “pointing fingers” after the tragedy. I regret the error.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America." More Joan Walsh.
More Related Stories
- IRS official takes the Fifth: "I have not done anything wrong"
- Experts: Fox News spying scandal a game-changer
- Lessons from Lincoln leave gay immigrants behind
- Los Angeles elects first Jewish mayor
- Peter King: There's "hypocrisy" over aid by Oklahoma senators
- Anthony Weiner announces run for NYC mayor
- How policy nihilists in the Senate doomed LGBT immigrants
- On freedom of speech, Obama-Nixon comparisons are apt
- Senate panel approves immigration overhaul
- Slave descendants seek equal rights from Cherokee Nation
- Peace Corps to allow gay couples to volunteer together
- Is abortion about to doom Republicans again?
- Anti-voter-fraud Tea Party group sues the IRS
- The Bachmann-inspired romance novel
- Nate Silver: Why the scandals aren't hurting Obama
- How to oust Michele Bachmann from Congress
- Rand Paul: Congress should apologize to Apple, not the other way around
- Who is Toronto Mayor Rob Ford?
- Colorado judge rules Abercrombie parent company violates Disabilities Act
- When America became a third-world country
- Inhofe and Coburn: Red state hypocrites
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11