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In Times of Tragedy, Presidents Often Called on as ‘Comforters-In-Chief’

January 12, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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President Obama's address in Tucson will echo a broader role presidents must play as leaders of national mourning. Jim Lehrer looks back on presidential responses to national crises with historian Michael Beschloss and Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of history at the University of New Hampshire.

JIM LEHRER: Now: a specific look at the president’s role during moments of national grieving.

When he speaks in Tucson this evening, President Obama will, in effect, become national comforter in chief, both for the victims of last Saturday’s shooting and for the nation.

Presidents as far back as Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg have tried to make sense of the senseless, in the wake of national tragedy.Seventy years ago, the day after the Pearl Harbor attack, President Roosevelt addressed Congress.

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT, former U.S. president:Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy.

JIM LEHRER: And there was Lyndon Johnson, newly sworn in, just hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

LYNDON JOHNSON, former U.S. president:This is a sad time for all people.

MAN: And lift-off.

JIM LEHRER: In more recent times, President Reagan confronted the loss of space shuttle Challenger and its seven-member crew on January 28, 1986.Mr. Reagan had been scheduled to deliver his State of the Union address that night.Instead, he remembered the victims in a speech from the Oval Office.

RONALD REAGAN, former U.S. president:We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.

JIM LEHRER: In April 1995, the country was jolted by the Oklahoma City bombing.It killed 168 people, 19 of them children.Four days later, President Clinton appealed to a grieving people.

BILL CLINTON, former U.S. president:Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear.When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it.When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it.In the face of death, let us honor life.

JIM LEHRER: And then, six years later, the attacks of September 11.That night, President Bush evoked what he called the steel of American resolve.

GEORGE W. BUSH, former U.S. president:Our country is strong.A great people has been moved to defend a great nation.Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America.

JIM LEHRER: Tonight will be the third time President Obama has faced the nation at such a moment.In November 2009, he eulogized the 13 soldiers who were gunned down at Fort Hood, Texas.And last April, in West Virginia, he remembered the 29 men killed in the nation’s worst coal mining disaster in 40 years.

Here now are two of the NewsHour’s regular historians, presidential historian Michael Beschloss, and Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of history at the University of New Hampshire.

Michael, some have suggested that helping people get through tragedies like the Tucson tragedy is actually a major and critical function of presidents of the United States.

Do you agree?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian:I do, but it’s only been really in recent times, really probably the last 24 years, since Ronald Reagan gave that speech that evening of the Challenger accident.

You know, I was thinking about this today, Jim.You remember, in 1963, there was a disaster.There was a nuclear attack submarine called the Thresher.


MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Sank off Cape Cod, 129 people killed.So, you know, by what we expect of presidents, I sort of thought, well, what was the ceremony in their memory?What speech did President Kennedy give?

Didn’t give one.He issued an executive order.Flags were flown at half-staff.But, in those days, people didn’t expect it.1967, there was an Apollo 1 disaster, three astronauts killed in a fire on the launch pad.Lyndon Johnson attended the funeral service not far from here at Arlington Cemetery.Two of the families were so furious at the negligence that caused the deaths of their family members, that they barely spoke to Johnson, but no speech.

This is really a recent phenomenon.

JIM LEHRER: And you think it really began with Ronald Reagan and the Challenger?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Because he did it so well.

You know, Jimmy Carter tried to do it in 1980, when Desert One, that helicopter that crashed near Tehran, killed some American soldiers, gave a speech at the time of the burial — I think that was at Arlington, too — but it was not Carter’s forte.

It was Reagan’s.And because Reagan was so good at this, we have expected that of later presidents.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Ellen, that it was really Ronald Reagan who began this in a major way that continues to this day?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK, professor, University of New Hampshire:I think it’s true in the sense of various kinds of national tragedies like the explosion of the Challenger, one example, of course, an obvious one.

But, in acts of political violence, there’s an interesting history to this.In 1935, when Senator Huey Long was assassinated, President Roosevelt issued a two-sentence statement upon that occasion, saying that he deeply regretted this attack on Long and that violence was un-American.

But, in 1968, when Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles in the midst of a presidential campaign, President Johnson gave a national address in which he decried the climate of violence, the rhetoric of extremism in the country.He called for Congress to enact gun control laws.And it was really, actually, quite a powerful speech.

It was a different speech in many ways than the examples Michael has cited, which I think are more common in recent years, in which the themes really are of the nation speaking through its president its condolences to the victims and trying to bring the country together in this moment of national mourning.

JIM LEHRER: Is it a time, Ellen, one of the few times, when a president, whether he or she be a Republican or a Democrat, a liberal or a conservative, actually speaks as a representative of the American people, and everybody accepts it without any qualms?


And today, of course, the newspapers were filled with discussions of what President Obama would say.So, there’s a greatly heightened attention to the president in his role as the chief executive of our country, as in some sense the person who we look to for moral leadership at a moment like this.

JIM LEHRER: But, Michael, is it really all about symbols, or is there any evidence that this actually helps people get through these things?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, I think there is some polling data that would suggest that.

But, you know, Jim, the founders said one of the jobs of a president is head of state.That’s a unifying function.Another part of it is prime minister, essentially, which is divisive.And, so, especially in the wake of an election loss like Barack Obama’s, it’s a moment that he can show that he can do a very good job of unifying the country in explaining what has happened.

And there’s the echo — you had it in your report — Bill Clinton in 1995.He had lost both houses of Congress.Many people were saying, was he relevant?He gave a very moving speech that caused people to think, maybe there’s more to Clinton than I thought.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Ellen, that these things do — they cast a larger shine than you would expect as just a symbol?



ELLEN FITZPATRICK: … because they are also opportunities, and rare as they may be, for the president to really show great eloquence.

I think that there’s broad agreement that President Reagan’s remarks after the Challenger explosion was really one of the best speeches he gave.It was tremendously moving.It was comforting, I think, to the country, and, of course, to the people who had lost loved ones in that tragic accident.

And the same might be said of Clinton’s speech after the Oklahoma City bombing.So, it’s a moment for a president to really, in some ways, reiterate the core moral values of the country, even as he seeks to bind up the wounds, as Abraham Lincoln said.

JIM LEHRER: And there is an assumption, Michael, that there are core values that everybody, no matter their politics, agrees with.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, one of them is, you don’t shoot members of Congress.And anyone who doesn’t agree with that doesn’t deserve to be in this country at all.

So, there really are.And the sweet thing is that we’re living in this poisonous time.There’s so much conflict.Everyone seems to be cynical.There’s still something in Americans that causes them, even if it’s a president they didn’t vote for, to listen to what a president says and say, how does he see this?What is he going to tell us about what this means?

JIM LEHRER: Ellen, there was a small discordant note sounded in Tom Bearden’s piece of the woman in Tucson who said, “Well, I wish he wouldn’t come,” meaning Obama, President Obama.”I wish he wouldn’t come, because it brings negative attention to the event, because it happened in Tucson.”

What do you make of that?That’s natural inclination?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Yes, I think that’s often the case.These tragedies, unfortunately, have happened all across our country.

But for the people that live locally and experience them very — very immediately, there’s a kind of visceral response and a worry that their — the place that they live will be associated, as if somehow violence and irrationality and this horrific attack would be something that would be restricted to one place, and not symptomatic of some sort of deeper problem.

One of the interesting themes in the presidential addresses on these occasions is that they try to personalize the victims of these tragedies very often to make them real people, and so that everyone will understand the nature of the loss that is sustained in these mass murder events.

Presidents very often have done that.And they often reach out to children who, tragically, have been so deeply impacted by these events, in this case, a young — young child losing her life.

JIM LEHRER: OK.Ellen and Michael, thank you both very much.