I have long believed in the power of oratory to calm the raging beast of malice, and lift the spirits of the down trodden. President Obama demonstrated that power last night when he answered the nations call to eulogize the slain victims of the Arizona assassin. The memorial also reminded me however: If the orator is an evil fiend that same power can drive men to commit atrocities. While Cicero argued that all true eloquence is to be found in the written word, Adolph Hitler concluded: “It is the spoken word not the written word that drives men to action!” Der Fuehrer’s mastery of the art of oratory – which he studied and practiced in the mirror for many hours – plunged the entire world into war and cost the lives of 50 million human beings around the globe!
In the Arizona tragedy we are witness to the power of the spoken word to produce both good and evil. In spite of the attempts to deny it, I continue to believe the toxic climate of hate created by verbal arsonists who spew hysterical rhetoric 24/7 over the airwaves is at the bottom of this atrocity. I think the argument that these rants played no part in the Arizona massacre is nothing more than a case of collective denial and self delusion. President Obama understands the power of words – written and spoken – that’s why he said Americans must learn how to use words to heal rather than hurt each other.
The President’s speech on this occasion offered a poignant demonstration of what he was talking about; putting his manners where his mouth is. Every thinking person who understands the potential for disaster in this volatile situation was waiting with bated breath to hear what the President had to say. There is a swelling chorus among the American public calling for the President to show “more passion” in his public pronouncements. It remains to be seen if the President’s performance will satisfy their lust for verbal combat. Alas, in spite of his great productivity in getting landmark legislation passed that will enrich the lives on millions of Americans, a lot of Democrats and assorted leftist just want to see him get mad and go off on the Republican provocateurs.
The feeling on this issue grew so virulent that I even wrote a commentary titled: “Does Barack Need to Smack Somebody?” My answer was that Barack was playing the “rope-a-dope” with the pugnacious Republicans. Like Muhammad Ali, he was picking the exact moments to take the offensive, and his record of accomplishments demonstrates that his strategy is working. He was true to his nomme de plume “No Drama Obama,” quiet but deadly.
The President’s choice of unifying themes and his dynamic delivery at the Tucson memorial won the audience, momentarily silenced his persistent critics, and initiated a national discussion on the question of maintaining civility in our political discourse. Although the soaring increase in gun sales and long firing ammo clips suggest that a portion of the electorate didn’t get the message.
The big question in everyone’s mind was whether the President would use the occasion to denounce incendiary propaganda in right-wing media and call for tightened gun laws. He decided that this was not the proper moment for that kind of discussion. Instead the President chose to speak to the pain the families were feeling, and brought a measure of satisfaction… even joy, as he recounted the lives of the fallen; which included many bright moments. The high point of his speech was when he recounted the life of the marvelous little girl who had come out to witness our democratic political system in action and wound up dead. Christina Taylor Green – whose body was interred today – was a superbly gifted, spunky, self assured nine year old who was happy with her life, supremely optimistic about the future, and had unlimited potential to contribute to our society.
The President’s decision to use the tragedy of her wanton murder as a focal point for his discussion of the need for Americans to turn to each other rather than on each other, was very effective. It was a fathers plea for America’s grown ups to live up to the expectations our children have for us – to build a better world where they can fulfill their dreams. Even Pat Buchanan – one of the right wing verbal arsonist in the GOP who has contributed mightily to the hateful political atmosphere that has engulfed the country – had to concede that it was a masterful speech.
While I seldom agree with Patty on anything, he has served as a presidential speech writer and knows an effective speech when he hears one. He thought the effectiveness of the speech lay in the fact that the President personalized the pain of the victims and their families and spoke from the heart. That this was the right speech for this occasion is verified both by the gratitude of the families, who were buoyed by the president’s appearance and the healing words with which he anointed them and soothed their pain, and his precipitous rise in the opinion polls this morning.
Although this message of national unity echoed the spirit of Abraham Lincoln in his message to Americans after the disaster of Civil War – “with malice toward none and charity for all” – he must remember that the Confederates remained unrepentant, and that Lincoln’s failure to fully understand that cost him his life! It is equally clear that the Republicans have only called a time out in order to try and shift the spotlight from their nefarious role in this tragedy. Even now, they are trying to spin the story so that the left will be equally implicated, or just paint the guy as a nut whose actions are inexplicable. And their self-serving praise for the President’s peace should fool no one. They are running about looking for an alibi like blind dogs in a meat packing plant!
Hence the President must return to this conversation and speak frankly about the role of right-wing media in manufacturing the kind of fear and rage that is a common theme in every one of the right-wing assassins story. The state of the union will be a great place to do it. And this time he should forget the poetry and stick to the facts…like Sergeant Friday would say: “Just the facts please!”
Harlem New York
December 14, 2011