The Sunday Review: Obama’s Arizona speech

by Anthony Painter

On a chilly April night in 1968, America’s second greatest poet-warrior in modern times climbed onto the back of a truck and gave a speech of transcendent power in the aftermath of the assassination of its greatest poet-warrior. Largely ad-libbed, Robert F Kennedy defined the moment, eschewing violence and outrage in favour of hope and healing.

“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black”.

The words could almost have been uttered by Martin Luther King himself. Perhaps in a strange way they were channeled through King – at a conceptual level at least. The theatre of modern politics is less chaotic, more stage-managed, and more crafted. Even in the context of higher production values, words can retain their moral force. President Obama’s challenge in the University of Arizona on Wednesday was to comfort a moment of national tragedy and set a new course. He did so and reminded the US of his poet warrior status at the same time.

Since Obama’s November “shellacking”, the strangest thing has happened. His presidency has been reborn. Triumph out of adversity? Kind of, but it’s less dramatic than that. He has finally been able to become the president he wanted to be.

We have seen the Barack Obama of his 2004 Democratic Convention speech where implored America to move beyond its partisan and geographical polarisation. It is the Barack Obama of The Audacity of Hope, a work with, occasionally irritating, bipartisan reasonableness. If now, in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings, is a moment with a promise of unity – and America must pray that is what it is – then President Obama’s core psychological disposition is welded to that opportunity.

And while he has been rediscovering his instinct over the last few weeks, the liberal left is still playing at trench warfare. This was manifested in the response to the Tucson shootings. In disturbing Twitter real-time proximity, reports of the tragedy could be read alongside a barrage of accusatory links to the now infamous Sarah Palin gun sight target map. It is a mystery that the left seems so determined to drag the likes of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and all the rest out of the entertainment industry and into real politics.  Leave them where they are; it’s where they belong.

Why do both sides of the American political divide, left and right, seem determined to hate their way to political supremacy? And how can it be right that the initial response to the deaths of nine and a Congresswoman fighting for her life is to cast the first stone and then for the other side to reflexively cast rocks back? Essentially, there is a very simple explanation. Both sides have an empathy deficit.

As it happens, empathy was one of the themes of Obama’s soaring speech on Wednesday. He connected empathy with an inability to craft a political discourse that explored ideas and interrogated difference, but in an atmosphere of mutual respect. In place of anger, he articulated the need for compassion and to listen to each other as all of America’s “hopes and dreams” were bound together. That was the message, but the connection was at an even deeper level than this. He asked people to ponder their own grief and use that a connective thread to one another. My grief is yours is his is hers is ours; and this is our emotional unity.

However, the speech was not just a case of rhetoric as therapy. A real leader is not only capable of meeting the emotional needs of a community and a nation. They are able to go one step further. They can turn grief and despair into new meaning. Obama can have a bit of the Baptist minister about him: yes, there is a need for elevated and civil public discourse, but we need to do better in our private lives too. Lead better lives and relate to one another; a nation’s challenges will be met.

Maybe it’s his religious core or maybe it is just an American habit but the speech’s one flaw was a slightly lazy straying into a Manichean good versus evil framing. Were these the horrific acts of someone evil, or someone who was profoundly disturbed through mental illness?

The conservative commentator, David Brooks, has discussed research that shows the occasional – and ghastly- incidence of a violent edge to serious mental illness. This is not to exonerate; it is to prepare and respond. Knowing this, why is there such poor inter-agency coordination so that the patient does not receive care and is not prevented for acquiring a firearm? In this regard, a notion of “evil” becomes a barrier to comprehension and prevention.

Nonetheless, President Obama achieved great things with this speech. It was testament to the power of language, the power of empathy, the capability of great leadership in expressing and positively channeling even a moment of despair, and the resonance of the better side of our basic nature. He has reasserted himself as America’s leader for these times and – as an unintended consequence – won the 2012 presidential election in the process.

Five days of riots broke out in Washington DC following the assassination of Martin Luther King and there were civil disturbances across the nation. Kennedy’s words were not enough. Talk radio hosts, angry Tea Partiers, and strident liberals will continue to verbally riot after Obama’s speech.

But poet warriors of whom Martin Luther King is the greatest – unsurpassably so – win ultimately, as their emotional connection and calm reason outlive the anger. President Obama’s voice will resonate long after the next latest crazy populist voice gets a platform and a following. And America will be a better and more compassionate society as a consequence.

Anthony Painter is the author of Barack Obama: the Movement for Change.

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