Pastor Bill Clinton's Lessons From Oklahoma City for Professor Barack Obama in Tucson

At a prime-time news conference on April 18, 1995, President Bill Clinton aroused both ridicule and pity when he stated, "The president is relevant." The comment seemed to encapsulate his weakened political position and what appeared to be his woeful state of mind as the new speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, dominated the news in the wake of Republican victories in the midterm elections just past.

But only hours later came the event that would prove to the nation that the president -- this president -- was, indeed, relevant. At 9 am local time on the nineteenth, Timothy McVeigh set off the truck bomb that killed 168 people -- mostly federal employees and their children -- at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. At the Oklahoma State Fair Arena four days after the attack, Clinton delivered a speech "filled with love and regret and pain and anguish," according to the historian Douglas Brinkley. "I don't think it could have been a better written or delivered speech." Comforting the victims, he comforted the nation, and gave it resolve to mete out justice to terrorists who would commit such evil acts. He made the case that a reviled class of Americans -- government bureaucrats -- in fact contributed to the nation's well-being. By extension, he was also making the case that, Republican rhetoric notwithstanding, government had a positive role to play in Americans' lives.

The speech marked the true beginning of Bill Clinton's rehabilitation in the eyes of the public after the electoral rebuke. It did so for two reasons.

First, it reinforced a political narrative that the Clinton White House had begun to write almost immediately after November's balloting. During the first two years of his administration, the GOP, focusing on issues like gun control, gays in the military, taxes, and health care, had succeeded in painting Clinton as a man out of touch with the heartland. Now Clinton & Co. were determined to turn the tables on the Republicans. "Over and over again," says Mike McCurry, then the White House press secretary, "we used the words 'radical' and 'extreme' interchangeably to discuss the priorities of the new Republican leadership in Congress." So when, in the bombing's immediate aftermath, McVeigh's sympathies for the growing militia movement were revealed, the public was prepared to place the attack in the context of the scorching anti-government rhetoric emanating from Gingrich and his cohort. Neither at Oklahoma City nor at Michigan State University twelve days later ("there is nothing patriotic about hating your country, or pretending that you can love your country but despise your government") did Clinton draw a connection between McVeigh's antigovernment act and Gingrich's antigovernment words.

He didn't have to. "It wasn't consciously trying to tie conservative extremism in the House to the militia groups," says McCurry of the commencement address in East Lansing. "But it was very clearly a statement about extreme rhetoric that declares government is not the solution, it's the problem. Even that Reaganesque language had a sinister side that fueled a lot of those guys who were way out there. Clinton felt that some voice had to stand for the value of us working together as a nation." The public could draw its own conclusions from the president's words. Oklahoma City set the stage for Americans' blaming Gingrich, not Clinton, for the government shutdowns that took place later that year, and for the Clinton campaign's ease in tying Gingrich around Bob Dole's neck as the president proceeded to trounce the Kansan in November the following year.

Second, Oklahoma City reminded people why they liked Clinton in the first place. When, before the 1992 New York primary, Bill Clinton answered a heckler from Act Up by saying, in part, "I feel your pain," the words became an instant punchline. But he was telling the truth. Clinton's deep empathy is just as phenomenal, and just as rare, as is his blazing intellect. And it has proven an invaluable asset throughout his career.

In 1992 Mickey Kantor, later a cabinet member, chaired Clinton's campaign. He recalls a day in New Hampshire shortly before that state's primary. By this time Clinton seemed finished as a presidential prospect owing to the dual revelations of Gennifer Flowers and his Vietnam-era draft history. "He's at a home for the elderly," says Kantor, "and they're talking about the price of pharmaceuticals, and people were talking about how they didn't have enough money. And a woman in the front row, after asking questions, starts crying. He just walks up, and he kneels down in front of this woman and hugs her." No other politician could pull off such a gesture -- it would be seen as awkward, uncomfortable, and false. But hugs and tears come naturally to Clinton, and in New Hampshire his empathy saved the day. Dee Dee Myers, the campaign press secretary, recalls that Clinton survived the ordeal "by connecting with people on a personal and important level. People voted for him because they really believed, after seeing him, that he got their problems and cared about them, that when push came to shove -- despite Gennifer Flowers -- he would act on their behalf."

The same thing saved him in January 1998, when Washington elites expected he wouldn't last a week in office after the name Monica Lewinsky had appeared in the Washington Post. In Oklahoma City, America once again got to see the Bill Clinton they'd voted for -- not the man who wanted to take away your right to see your own doctor, not the defender of homosexuals and persecutor of gun owners, but the Man from Hope, the survivor of a broken home who understood their dreams, their struggles, and their problems. The worst of Clinton is really bad, but the best of Clinton is damn good. At eulogies -- at Oklahoma City, at the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995, addressing students at Columbine after the shootings there in 1999 - Clinton always shone.

Speaking of Oklahoma City, Joe Gaylord, a key adviser to Newt Gingrich during the 1990s, said, "In times of great disaster, the country needs a president." They do today, too. President Obama has made the right call in choosing to speak in Tucson on Wednesday. Only a president can provide succor to a nation shaken by the shootings on Saturday.

Like Bill Clinton's words at Oklahoma City, Barack Obama's words at Tucson will be delivered against a backdrop of antigovernment zealotry. As Clinton did that day in Oklahoma, Obama can remind people why they voted for him.

It now seems unlikely that Jared Lee Loughner set out to kill Gabrielle Giffords because of her vote on health care -- we don't know what his motive was, and speculating on the basis of his posted reading list is ridiculous. But we do know that over the summer of 2009 many town-hall meetings on health care were taken over by people overflowing with rage; that Tea Party gatherings emphasize gun rights and tell us over and over that "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants"; that Sarah Palin published a map with crosshairs over the districts of twenty members of Congress, including that of Giffords; that Nevada Senate candidate Sharon Angle spoke ominously of "second amendment remedies"; that Michelle Bachmann, who frequently represents her party on national TV, called for Minnesotans to be "armed and dangerous"; that posters at Tea Party rallies depict Obama as a witch doctor or as Hitler; that threats of violence against members of Congress have risen threefold in recent months; and that a dozen members of Congress are sponsoring a bill whose premise is suspicion that Barack Obama is foreign born and thus an illegal occupant of his office.

In their everlasting attempt to seem evenhanded, some Washington journalists have cited instances of violent metaphors used by Democrats to claim that there is a moral equivalence here. There isn't. We should all reexamine our rhetoric in light of Tucson, the Democrats who uttered those few instances -- and authors of op-ed essays -- included. But ever since the 2008 campaign we have lived in an environment of hate, tinged with the threat of violence, created by the right. And the hate has come not only from people on the margins of the Republican Party -- from the deluded and obscure, who have nothing better to do than scream at their congressperson for the offense of providing them the opportunity to buy health insurance. No, the venom has emanated from some of the GOP's leading lights, and has been tolerated, and at times encouraged, by the rest of them.

Loughner's apparent lack of connection to the political climate notwithstanding, Obama should not pass this opportunity to appeal to the better angels of our nature. He should use Giffords' example to extol the value of public service and the bravery of people like the congresswoman who, rather than hide behind bullet-proof glass and concrete barriers, have continued to bring Congress to their constituents' corners. He should ignore Republican protestations that Loughner's act and their words should not be mentioned in the same breath, and should use our shared revulsion at this horrible act to urge a lowering of the rhetorical temperature. (Sadly, a more direct lesson of the shooting -- the danger presented by easily bought guns -- will go unheeded. Even a bid to reinstate the seemingly unobjectionable ban on high-capacity magazines like the one Loughner used will have no legs. The National Rifle Association remains absolutist, and national Democrats, led by Barack Obama, have surrendered to its power.)

As was Bill Clinton, during his first two years in office Barack Obama has been strangely passive as the Republican opposition (mis)defined him and his programs. But while the general public may not be aware that Obama cut their taxes and that "Obamacare" does not involve a "government takeover" of our health care system, it cannot have avoided noticing the climate of hatred these past two years and noticing who has been creating it. When Obama calls in Tucson for a retreat from the extremes he need not call out the GOP as a party gone mad; the public will get the idea. The speech can move him a long way toward rescuing his political fortunes. He need not score cheap political points -- in doing the right thing now he will also be doing the right political thing. This week the nation needs him to rise to the occasion, as a compassionate leader but also one who is powerful and authoritative. That his enhanced stature will aid him as he seeks reelection is the GOP's problem, not his.

J. Philip Wogaman, a Methodist minister in Washington whose church the Clintons often attended, recalled of Bill, "In Oklahoma City, he was a pastor to the nation." Barack Obama is less suited to that role: as far as we know he does not enjoy the encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture possessed by Clinton, a Southern Baptist with a photographic memory. And Obama's natural persona is more educator than empath. Still, he comes to the crisis well-positioned to meet it. In 2008, when race, in the person of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, threatened to end his presidential bid, Obama delivered a thoughtful, courageous address that not only dispelled the issue for his campaign but also gave the American people new understanding of race as it had been transformed over time. "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America," he said at the 2004 Democratic convention, during his first moment on the national stage, "there is the United States of America." His abiding devotion to bridging divides has allowed the obstructionist Republicans in Congress to make a chump of him these past two years, but now his belief in respectful discourse -- and the public's awareness of that belief -- can work to his advantage. The calm, rational conciliator is perfectly poised to bring calm to an anxious citizenry.

Bill Clinton, a man whose faults were no secret in April 1995, may seem an unlikely figure to have so successfully preached to the nation then. But in a way, his broad, sloppy humanity -- his intimate acquaintance with moral failure and struggle, both his own and those of people around him -- equipped him to meet the moment. Clinton knew that he was an imperfect messenger. Reverend Wogaman remembered that the president appeared in Church two Sundays after his speech: "I greeted him at the door as he was coming in. I said, 'Mr. President, if, after politics, you are looking for another position, I think you'd make a fine pastor.' He smiled and said, 'I'm not a good enough person.'

Obama may be too good a person -- too well-behaved, too self-controlled -- to be pastor to the nation. But, in this teachable moment, he can be teacher to the nation. It's time for the professor-in-chief to heal this terrible wound. By doing so, he can also transform his presidency.