His Finest Hour

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama at the Tucson memorial service, January 12, 2011

During the 2008 presidential campaign, I wrote in The New York Review a comparison of Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race with Lincoln’s Cooper Union address during his own 1860 campaign.1 I noted that both men had to separate themselves from embarrassing associations—Lincoln from John Brown’s violent abolitionism and Obama from Jeremiah Wright’s black nationalism. They had to do this without engaging in divisive attacks or counterattacks. They did it by appeal to the finest traditions of the nation, with hope for the future of those traditions. Obama renounced black nationalism without giving up black pride, which he said was in the great American tradition of self-reliance:

It means taking full responsibility for our own lives—by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

In a situation where his critics trumpeted “family values,” he spelled out what those really are. I concluded by saying, of Lincoln and Obama: “Each looked for larger patterns under the surface bitternesses of their day. Each forged a moral position that rose above the occasions for their speaking.”

The New York Review wanted to publish a booklet printing the Lincoln and Obama speeches together, but the Obama campaign discouraged that idea, perhaps to avoid any suspicion that they were calling Obama a second Lincoln. Well, I am willing to risk such opposition now, when I say that his Tucson speech bears comparison with two Lincoln speeches even greater than the Cooper Union address. In this case, Obama had to rise above the acrimonious debate about what caused the gunman in Tucson to kill and injure so many people. He sidestepped that issue by celebrating the fallen and the wounded and those who rushed to their assistance. He has been criticized by some for holding a “pep rally” rather than a mourning service. But he was speaking to those who knew and loved and had rallied around the people attacked. He was praising them and those who assisted them, and the cheers were deserved. He said that the proper tribute to them was to live up to their own high expectations of our nation. It was in that context, and not one of recrimination, that he called for civility, service—and, yes, heroism—in the country.

In preparing his speech, Obama had called and talked to the families of those slain and to the survivors. He could tell their personal stories. Michelle Obama invited the family of the murdered nine-year-old to visit her in the White House. Obama came to the speech from the bedsides of those who had been wounded. Their message to him was one of…

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