Thursday, January 13, 2011

The President at Tucson: How will we change?

By Bernie Quigley

For The Hill on 1/12/11

Generational historians say that the times can change in an afternoon. This change may have occurred Saturday in Tucson; an afternoon many of us began thinking about Michael Vick and ended listening to Dr. Peter Rhee at the trauma center in Tucson. History will mark it by the President’s speech, introducing himself as “an American.” This will define him for the first time in a long time, as “one of us” and define ourselves as one with him as well. He did, for the moment, “make sense to that which seems senseless.” None of us can know what triggered this vicious attach, he said, “But what we cannot do is to use this occasion to turn on each other.”

Came to mind in these warring times the words of Lt. Colonel Ely Parker, the Seneca Indian who served as an aid to Ulysses S. Grant, to Robert E. Lee during the signing at Appomattox: “We are all Americans here.”

The President does have “an instinct for empathy” and it was a good speech. Obama is in many ways better than many who support and many who oppose him, and it is that Obama, the empathetic Obama, which elevates us collectively, let’s the American spirit soar and rings with suggestion of JFK. But the speech and the events do ask, as he said, “what is required of us” in moving forward? How do we change? What have we become since Saturday?

The Tucson tragedy brings a turning point. Like Kent State, for example, when four college students were shot by National Guard on May 4, 1970. The Sixties pretty much ended then but left a bitter aftermath. Another was March 30, 1981, when John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. I have distinct memories of that sitting in my office on Madison Avenue. The recent Yale grad calling her friend to say she hoped he would die still grates. But he didn’t. And Reagan was reelected, carrying 49 out of 50 states. The bitter and the confused went on to grad school or entered rehab.

The tragic shootings in Tucson could well bring a change of zeitgeist. In the last month, President Obama shifted his positions to the middle, fortifying his staff with the mainstream Bill Daley of Chicago. Strategically, it was a clever move, virtually sweeping the 20% on the edge of the left off the table. The center moved right in the November election and Obama moved with it. He specifically cited the editorial board of The New York Times as being out of touch and not representative of mainstream America. But the Tucson shootings brought that whack-a-mole effect: Up they popped again, as if on cue, Marcos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, Paul Krugman and the New York Times itself. Possibly they could be relevant again in this time of hysteria.

Or not. As The Hill’s Christian Heinze reports this week, Sarah Palin is being defended by a variety of mainstream media figures and liberal journalists in the wake of the Arizona shootings, pushing Olbermann, Krugman and the crew back over the edge. Her supporters included ABC’s Barbara Walters, the Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz, the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine’s Dan Amira and The Atlantic’s Garance Frank-Ruta.

It is also significant that The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol, icon of the conservative movement, was the first to come to Palin’s aid, suggesting that pinning culpability on Palin in the tragedy was MaCarthyist. Kristol’s visceral reaction was most important; a natural reflex, indicating that in spite of differences, Palin is, to them, “one of us.” Likewise, conservative Charles Krauthammer’s column in the Washington Post, “Massacre, followed by libel.” He responds to the charge that “The Tucson massacre is a consequence of the ‘climate of hate’ created by Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Obamacare opponents and sundry other liberal betes noires.” Krauthammer, a psychiatrist by trade says, “rarely in American political discourse has there been a charge so reckless, so scurrilous and so unsupported by evidence.”

Krauthammer has never liked Palin (although she is the conservative’s best bet on Israel). Kristol is of mixed mind. He is adamantly opposed to the drive to small government to which Palin appears attached. But crisis speaks to the heart, the better place. This one could well bring consolidation to oppositional factions on the right.

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