Before he'd even finished speaking - which was as good a definition of "rush to judgment" you're likely to get - the usual suspects were already offering their familiar refrain: "The best speech he ever gave," "he hit it out of the park" and on and on. Today will surely be filled with more of those exquisitely uncomfortable expressions of hero worship and mass love that seem to follow President Obama, sometimes quietly, often loud and gushing, Don't get between the hero and his adoring crowd.
The Tucson "Memorial Service" - if it can be called that - is already taking its place in the "legendary" and "historic" pantheon of those ever great, ever best, speeches that President oBama gives at regular intervals. Almost like some doppelganger reflection of the low standards applied to the Bush Presidency - where merely reading the text without stumbling became the low bar for his supporters of his greatness - President Obama endures a standard where his most recent remarks are somehow always his best, the most wonderful, the most ideal. It is the best of all possible worlds. How could it be otherwise?
It will no doubt seem churlish to some to suggest that, from a distance, absent both the "Obama wonderful" sensibilities and the pump priming for mass grieving on cue, that the event, and especially the President's speech, tended to fall flat, and seemed not especially appropriate, or on point. From the cheering, screaming crowds better suited to a Basketball final than a moment to grieve or mourn; to the generic, banal thoughts the President offered as (fairly cold) comfort, nothing last night seemed to work quite the way it should. And the net result, in the long run, is the net result President Obama has garnered from all his "best ever" speeches: good will with a short half life, and the sure sense that after his remarks, nothing really is or will be any different.
"It is a president’s responsibility to salve a national wound." the New York Times breathlessly opined in its lead editorial today... but why? The sense of occasion last night was itself sort of misrepresented from the get-go, a suggestion, in advance, that somehow only the President could make sense of this "senseless" tragedy (when, in reality, this idea of President as Mourner in Chief is quite recent, and probably indicative a national emotionalism that's misplaced). Of course, as Rachel Maddow and others (me included), have pointed out about the shooting in Arizona... an even larger point is that such shootings are not inexplicable. Or incomprehensible. Or unimaginable. We have mass shootings too often in this country, often committed by people suffering from untreated mental illness to pretend we don't know.
But not knowing is our preference, shock is our preferred mode of operating, and into the breach stepped the President, looking, from what I could tell, somewhat dismayed by what had preceded his entrance. He tried, valiantly and with little success to try and tamp down the crowd's too easy cheers at every jingo-istic sentiment, and lost the battle, in part because speech had much in the way of crowd pleasing bromides, easy calls to cheer on heroism nd an emphasis on only the Good News.
In part, the mistake in the eulogizing was structural: billed as event to "honor those we lost and those who survived," it was clear that political instinct sent the speakers first to their colleague and friend, Representative Giffords (calling her "Gabby" was overly familiar and another indication of tonal dissonance). Eulogizing Giffords - which nearly every speaker fell into - didn't fit her circumstance, and the attempts to then shoehorn appropriately grieving words for those who had died was a hairpin rhetorical turn few would master successfully. I'm pretty sure not one speaker up there did.
President Obama is a prisoner, in many ways, of his own legend in the making. A graceful, accomplished speaker, he does represent a vast improvement on his immediate predecessor... but not, necessarily, the kind of transcendent orator his fans make him out to be. He rarely strays from prepared remarks. He is best when the crowd is already on his side and needs only mild encouragement to further uplift. He's hard pressed to tell an assembled crowd hard truths or things they don't necessarily want to hear.
And, as always, President Obama has an instinct for stunning vagueness in his speeches. "Hope and change" is really just a starting point - a midpoint, even - in the President's instincts to share thoughts that can, without much work, be all things to almost anyone. That was reiterated last night, when conservatives heard in his remarks a "call to niceness" that was a rebuke to the left, while progressives heard just the kind of exhortation to "civil discourse" they'd wanted to use to blame Republicans for introducing into the political debate. That's a near perfect recipe for not having a more civil anything in just a matter of days.
The Presiden's speech, on pretty much every level, boiled down to a sermonizing "it would be nice if we could all be nicer to each other", a bromide of nondenominational vagueness that's virtually impossible to disagree with... and impossible to fulfill. He sad we owed it to the dead to raise the level of discourse, the the American Dream rested on our doing it, that, at his most shameless, we had to do it most for the youngest victim of the shooting and her - as he put it - dreams of what American Democracy could be. He called it a new "standard of debate" - which amounts, really, to his standard, and as he has before, puts a kind of control over our discourse that no one person can set.
The big mistake, probably was out of the President's hands: a decision, for crowd size, to shift the event onto a literal field of Presidential fans, rather than a smaller, more intimate, and surely more appropriate venue like a Church or a hall less centrally on a college campus. College kids, the most naturally enthusiastic of the President's fanbase, are not usually filled with the kind of gravitas a memorial service asks of us (as my mother noted, compare the scene to Virginia Tech, and the difference becomes stark, in part due to the personal connection the former had) - I was a college student; I remember it well. And I think the University of Arizona president bears considerable responsibility for what didn't work and why.
In the end, though, the failure of the speech, and it's soap bubble quality of influencing our "discourse" for mere minutes in the greater scheme of things, is a failing borne of the failure to face the reality of this shooting and others: "uncivil discourse" didn't cause this shooting, and a civil discourse, however that's supposed to look, won't prevent the next one. Failing to, even tangentially, take on the questions of the shooter's deep mental disturbance (and in that, I'm slightly more depressed about Jan Brewer, who actually cares about the subject, even more than the President), and our national failings to better identify and treat mental illness. Doing that, straying from national expectations, and cheap sentiments and easy moralizing, would to me mind be a speech of greatness, a resetting of our national discussion that, yes, possibly only the President can make happen. That's the bar Mr. Obama never quite reaches, and I'm not sure he ever even tries. And with his fans' adulation... he may never need to.