Entry from January 13, 2011

If ever there were a refutation of the notion that has somehow got abroad that conservatives “hate” or otherwise wish to think ill of President Obama, it is to be found in the reaction of so many of them — for instance, here and here and here and here — to his speech in Tucson yesterday evening. The media and the punditry, both left and right, are for once united in their opinion of the speech as a triumph — which to me suggests that conservatives are looking for any excuse to think as well of the President as liberals and the media already do. And yet I persist in thinking that if the speech was a triumph for the President, it missed its real purpose, which was to turn us away from himself, here as always the center of attention, and towards the victims and the heroes of last Saturday.

It’s not, of course, that one disagrees with anything he said. The plea for greater civility and forbearance between political and ideological opposites, in particular, was unexceptionable. But that plea was not delivered in a rhetorical vacuum. It took place in the context of a furious four-day debate in the media — “debate,” that is, as it is currently used in the media, which is mostly mere name-calling and has little or nothing to do with actual debate — as to whether the murders and attempted murders that took place in Tucson last Saturday had anything to do with the civility or lack of it in our political life. The supposed debate itself, that is, was a manifestation of the incivility it purported to deplore. Paul Krugman and others professed to believe — on the basis no evidence whatsoever — that the murderer, Jared Lee Loughner, was somehow moved to act as he did by Tea Partiers or Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh and not, as it has become increasingly obvious he did, by his own deranged fantasies.

The charge was an outrageously uncivil one, but it was not repudiated as such by the President. Instead, he said this: “And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud.” (Emphasis added.) In the circumstances, that must imply at least partial agreement with Professor Krugman’s characterization of the right. It may not have been a simple lack of civility that caused this tragedy, but the door is left open to the suggestion that the two had something to do with one another.

They didn’t. The civil approach would have been for him to deny that the actions of a madman reflected at all on the American political debate, however civil or uncivil that might be. “Folks,” he should have said. “I think we ought to try to be more civil with each other, but this is not the occasion for such an exhortation on my or anybody else’s part. The terrible thing that happened here in Tucson last Saturday was not the fault of anyone, left, right or center, in our political life or of his or her style of argument and invective. It was the fault of one person and one person only, a person whose disordered and delusional mind was the product of forces which could be known, if by anyone, only by himself. This is not the occasion to turn our attention from compassion for those who have been so cruelly killed and injured, or from appreciation for those brave men and women who prevented the slaughter from becoming even greater, to a discussion of matters of partisanship, whether of style or of substance, with which these things have nothing to do.”

Words such as these would have shown a true leadership, a determination to shape the context oneself and not to use it cynically to imply that there might, after all, be something to the libelous association between his political opponents with murderous lunacy and psychopathology. The conservative punditry were perhaps only reflecting the opinion of those who were present in Tucson for the President’s speech who, to judge from their enthusiastic response were highly approving. John Podhoretz for one, though approving of the speech itself, deplored the audience’s unseemly reaction to it. I think he was right to do so, but wrong to let Mr Obama off the hook for encouraging that reaction and, in fact, playing to it. If the occasion bore more of a resemblance to a pep rally, as even Dan Balz of the Washington Post suggested, than to a service of mourning, the President himself and his calculatedly crowd-pleasing speech cannot escape responsibility.

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