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Obama's 'Gettysburg Moment': For Us, the Living

The task to draw meaning from random tragedy is a bar far higher for a president to clear than merely delivering an annual budget or State of the Union address.
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America's Founders, with their bedrock commitment to religious liberty, never considered creating the job of National Bishop. Instead, they gave us the presidency, an office that occasionally demands its occupant exercise a clear, theological function -- to comfort console a people who have always believed themselves to be uniquely "under God." The task is to draw meaning from random tragedy -- and to declare a renewal of national purpose.

It's a bar far higher for a president to clear than merely delivering an annual budget or State of the Union address. Thing is, in that people are likely to remember it if it's done well, even to consider it a defining moment in a particular president's tenure. Call it "the Gettysburg Moment" -- a reference to Lincoln's Address, not the battle; that speech set the gold standard for all such public reflections to come.

Ronald Reagan faced such a moment the day Space Shuttle Challenger exploded after take-off; for Bill Clinton, it came in the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. George W. Bush found himself squarely confronting it in the aftermath of 9/11. Obama's moment came Wednesday night, in Tucson, four days and a short drive from the shopping center where a Glock-wielding terrorist unloaded a clip of bullets into a small crowd of citizens gathered to greet their local Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords.

Notice how Obama, standing at the podium in the University of Arizona arena, named and described the six people who died that Saturday morning? He took each one individually, sharing their biographies. And what then did he say they were doing, along with the congresswoman and her staff, when the attack came? "They were fulfilling a central tenet of the democracy envisioned by our founders -- representatives of the people answering questions to their constituents, so as to carry their concerns back to the nation's capital."

In Obama's telling, these men and women fully reflected the spirit (if not the circumstances) of Lincoln's "honored dead," the men who "gave the last full measure of devotion" to the cause of representative democracy and political freedom.

In sharp contrast to Lincoln, Obama spoke at length. But then no president has dared address tragedy so briefly; none has ever done so with the eloquence Lincoln did at Gettybsurg. And none, in my uncontroversial opinion, can ever aspire to Lincoln's greatness as a leader, speaker or human being. Nor can anyone hope to re-capture the majesty of the Gettysburg Address, which stands at the apex of the American canon of political speeches, a position shared with Lincoln's Second Inaugural. (To be blunt, then, don't get me wrong: neither I nor anyone I know confuses Obama with Lincoln. Each president is unique, as are the special demands with which each must deal.)

But the form Lincoln set at Gettysburg can be followed. Consider Obama's plea, as he moved toward his speech's conclusion, that we as a nation must "look forward," rather than back, and that we Americans live our lives in a way "that would make them [those killed] proud."

He circled back to that theme and personalized it even more a few paragraphs later. Speaking of the youngest person murdered that Saturday -- the nine-year-old Christina Green, recently elected to her elementary school student council, on her way to visit her congresswoman -- Obama lifted her memory up as the model of hopeful citizenship. "I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us -- we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations."

The words spoken in 2011 follow the form laid down in 1863: out of tragedy, we seek meaning and national renewal.

Two-thirds of the way through his Address, Lincoln spoke the phrase at its heart, " ... it is for us, the living ... " With that, he stepped beyond his necessary memorial of the fallen soldiers into the prescriptive realm of civic duty that he said was demanded of the vast community of survivors, all Americans, coast to coast. "[F]rom these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause ... that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom ... "

Notice that Obama himself paraphrased the ever-enduring final phrase Lincoln used in his Address -- the one that has defined the American democratic ideal ever since. It came immediately after he described what Giffords and her constituents were doing on Saturday morning: "Gabby called it 'Congress on Your Corner' -- just an updated version of government of and by and for the people."

To many Americans, those words -- the of, by and for the people -- have sacred familiarity of Scripture. Indeed, they can fairly be described as such -- as verses from the national scripture -- words that enshrine ideals we firmly believe set us apart and give our nation meaning and purpose.

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