TOPICS > Politics

Obama’s Call for Civil Discourse Resonates Around the Country

January 13, 2011 at 5:02 PM EDT
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Reporters give a broader reaction to the president's speech on the Tucson tragedy from public broadcasting stations in New York, Ohio, California, and Oklahoma.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we turn to our public-media colleagues for more reaction to last night’s memorial and the president’s speech.

Dick Pryor has anchored the nightly Oklahoma News Report for 20 years on OETA. He covered the 1995 bombing, and he joins us from Oklahoma City. Julie Philipp is news director of WXXI in Rochester, N.Y., and host of Need to Know Rochester. Jose Luis Jimenez is with us from KPBS-San Diego. He is the social-media editor for Fronteras: The Changing America Desk, a consortium of seven Southwestern radio stations. And Karen Kasler is capital bureau chief for Ohio Public Radio and Television.

We want to thank you, all four, for talking with us.

And, Dick Pryor, I’m going to start with you.

What are people in your viewing area around Oklahoma City saying about what the president had to say last night?

DICK PRYOR, OETA-TV: I think people here were very impressed by what President Obama said.

Obviously, they were listening first and foremost to hear how he compared to what President Clinton said in 1995 following the Oklahoma City bombing. The speech was different. The atmosphere was different. It was a lot longer. President Clinton spoke for nine minutes.

And the atmosphere in the arena was different than it was in Oklahoma City. It was much more solemn here. But I believe that the president did all of the things that he needed to do. And that’s what people were looking for.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was interesting that the crowd at times broke out into applause and cheers, almost — there was almost a sense of relief about that.

Julie Philipp, what about in western New York? What — what are you picking up there?

JULIE PHILIPP, WXXI-TV: Really, it is a very general positive reaction to his speech.

I think New Yorkers, Rochester, people here in general have the sense that they want their elected officials to act more like grownups. And when he first came up to the podium, and you could hear what seemed to be the students screaming and whistling and interrupting him, he very gently turned that around and calmed things down, and was very solemn, and reminded people what the occasion was all about.

And he acted in a very adult manner and in a very civil way. And I think that went over very well here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, on the other side of the country, Jose Luis Jimenez in San Diego, you’re so close to — to Tucson, or closer than our other guests tonight. What do you think people where you are expected, and what was the reaction?

JOSE LUIS JIMENEZ, KPBS-TV: Well, and yesterday we turned to our social media platforms, and we asked people what they wanted to hear from the speech. And the first thing they said is that they wanted politics set aside.

They also said that they felt wounded, and they wanted to hear words of wisdom that they wanted to heal. Today, turning back to our social media platforms, people are basically saying that he hit the mark, that — they’re using words like hope and unity to describe the speech, and they like the fact that he focused more on the survivors and the victims of the tragedy, as opposed to some of the other elements of it.

And that’s also being reflected in the larger social-media sphere. You see today a lot of people posting direct quotes from the speech on social media platforms, which seems to indicate that it did resonate with some people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jose Jimenez, staying with you for a moment, what are some of the quotes people are posting?

JOSE LUIS JIMENEZ: A lot of people are taking the inspirational quotes, basically, when Obama used the child, the 9-year-old, as an example, to use her memory to go forward, to build an America that she would be proud of in the future. That seems to be one of the main quotes that you’re seeing a lot on — being posted on social-media platforms, and also the call to civility, to continue talking about the issues, but to put the discourse in a much more civil manner.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Karen Kasler, to you in Columbus, Ohio, what are you picking up?

KAREN KASLER, capitol bureau chief, Ohio Public Radio: Well, here in Ohio, we’re no strangers to big events being held in arenas and that sort of things. I mean, we have The Ohio State University here in Columbus.

And so the pep-rally atmosphere in a way wasn’t a surprise to, I think, a lot of people in Ohio. And, once again I think you had kind of a split amongst people who like President Obama, they liked his speech. People who don’t like him don’t like his speech.

And if you read Facebook and social media and Twitter, and then you also listened to talk radio here in Ohio, you heard that split, you heard that very obvious difference between people who thought he had a wonderful speech, a lot of calls for unity and civility and a really soothing, healing kind of speech, others saying that it was divisive for him to have spoken at this event, that they felt like this was a political opportunity for him — so, a bit of a split decision here.

Ohio is a solidly Republican state now, so, in a way, that’s not too surprising.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dick Pryor, back to you in Oklahoma. Were you picking up that split? Is that what you’re sensing there, too?

DICK PRYOR: Absolutely. But I think only the harshest critics would have criticized President Obama’s speech here in Oklahoma.

I think the people here were looking for those things that were comforting to the victims. We know what that feels like in Oklahoma. He needed to reach out to the families and comfort them, to honor the victims, to applaud the heroes, and also to validate the community and let everybody know in the community that the entire nation shared in their grief.

President Clinton did that very effectively. President Obama did it as well in very human terms. His connection when he was talking about the victims, I think, was very powerful.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Julie Philipp in Rochester, N.Y., when the president talked about a need for civil discourse, for civility, for a country as good as little Christina Green would have imagined, is there a sense that that’s realistic?

JULIE PHILIPP: Well, I think that New Yorkers right now are riding this little ripple of hope that, you know, things will get better.

We have a new governor, Andrew Cuomo, and he spent some time in his inaugural address and his state of the state talking about how political discourse needs to be more civil. And there was sort of a general overall positive response to that. So, there is this little ripple of hope that things are going to change.

And I think the president’s speech might have reinforced that a bit, although it’s probably far too soon to say that ripple is turning into a wave.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to San Diego again, to Jose Jimenez.

Is it your sense that what the president talked about when he talked about the need for more civility, that those are just nice words, or do people really believe that that can take place?

JOSE LUIS JIMENEZ: Well, I think yes, they are nice words, and I think people wanted to hear those nice words at this moment.

And, again, getting back to what they’re telling us, they have hope for the future, that perhaps his words will inspire to change. But I think they’re also realistic of the climate that we’re in, and they’re not expecting a miracle to happen overnight, that this might take some time, but they’re still hopeful that there could be some change coming forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Karen Kasler, the same thing. Is there a sense that it’s words, that the president means well, but that the political reality is very different? Or how — how do you see it?

KAREN KASLER: I know there are a lot of people in Ohio who have gotten very sick of what they feel to be overblown political rhetoric. We had some very bitter congressional campaigns here in Ohio in November. And, also, our gubernatorial campaign was very divisive. You had both political parties pouring a lot of money into these campaigns, a lot of people saying they were very frustrated with the negative tone that was coming out of both candidates on both sides.

And, so, the idea of bringing a little bit more civility has been talked about quite often. And so I think there’s a lot of people who really would like to see this happen. Whether it can actually happen and if it would take something like this for this to happen is really the question.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Julie Philipp, again, in Rochester, do you think people have an understanding of what it would take to make our public discourse, our political discourse more civil, to bring back the kind of humility that the president referred to last night?

(LAUGHTER)

JULIE PHILIPP: Well, it would take politicians continuing to act like that on a regular basis. And that’s something that really has not happened here in a long time.

Even after 9/11, when there was a very great sense that the country needed to come together and that politics needed to be put aside, that didn’t last very long. We, too, had some very divisive elections. One of the local representatives, Louise Slaughter, here had a brick thrown through her office during the health care debate last March.

And there was a debate thrown — or a brick, rather, thrown through the local county Democratic headquarters at about the same time. So, I think there’s a lot of skepticism over whether a speech is going to change things. It’s going to take a lot of behavior changes in the legislative chambers across the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jose Jimenez in southern California, what do you think the perspective is there, that there really could be change in the way our politicians talk to each other, in the way conduct their business, or that this is just a moment — a moment in time?

JOSE LUIS JIMENEZ: I think people are hoping that this will be an opportunity to bring some change.

Again, they feel, this climate — they feel that, in this climate that we’re in right now, there’s a lot of rhetoric, but there’s not a lot of things getting done. And, at the end of the day, people just want solutions to problems. And if it takes this tragedy in Tucson to maybe change the culture, to perhaps start fomenting some change, to actually deal with some of the solutions, then I think people will feel good about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Karen Kasler, it sounds as if you’re saying, again, the Ohio — the Columbus, Ohio, perspective is that maybe some people don’t want the two parties to work together. I mean, how do you see that?

KAREN KASLER: Well, Republicans now run every statewide office here in Ohio. And we heard our new governor, John Kasich, former congressman, talking about, we need to work together because we have got a huge budget deficit in Ohio.

And that remains to be seen whether both sides can work together. But it’s not just lawmakers and politicians and even people on one side or the other. You even have reports out — for example, there was a report out this week from FBI data showing that background checks for handgun sales in Ohio were up 65 percent for the Monday after the shooting over a year ago — 65 percent. That was the largest increase in the nation.

And then you have gun-rights activists saying that means one thing. You have antigun activists saying that means something else. So, certainly, the discourse goes even beyond just the political realm into all the other issues that surround the shooting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And pick up on that, because we heard the same thing around Phoenix, in Arizona, that gun sales have picked up and ammunition sales have picked up dramatically since this incident, out of, apparently, a fear that guns may be taken away.

I want to come back to Julie Philipp on that question.

Is there a sense that maybe it’s time to look at gun laws? The president didn’t refer directly to that, but he did talk about — in so many words, he said, we can’t afford to just ignore this violence and be passive about it.

JULIE PHILIPP: Mm-hmm. Yes, I think I read a report where gun sales went up in New York as well.

There is — there was an editorial about, you know, this is a time to look toward the — at the gun-control laws and maybe strengthen them a little bit. But then somebody mentioned, you know, that the people who subdued the shooter in Tucson didn’t have guns, so that this debate over, you know, we don’t need stricter laws is sort of moot when you have the people that saved the day didn’t have to use guns.

So, that was sort of where the debate is going here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dick Pryor, I want to come back to you on that point, and also this — this question of whether it’s just dreaming to say that we can have political conversation, discourse in this country that’s more civil, that’s more respectful of one another.

DICK PRYOR: Well, I heard from people that are hoping that that will happen.

I think people in Oklahoma learned following the Oklahoma City bombing that you can’t rush to judgment. You can’t fix blame too quickly, because there are many factors that can conspire to cause a tragedy such as this one. And, indeed, I think that’s what happened in Tucson.

So, people are not going to go out and immediately say we need to have gun-control laws. Or people are not going to go out and say that we are going to automatically change our discourse in the public sphere.

But I do think there are people here that realize it’s a combination of all of those factors. I heard people say that words do matter. We do need to tone down the rhetoric, because people who have mental illness — and that’s really a big concern here — are more likely perhaps to go out and do something like this.

I talked to the mental-health commissioner in Oklahoma just this week, and she said: I think that is one thing that Oklahoma and all other states need to take a harder look at, is not just the rhetoric, not just the access to guns, but it’s how we deal with our mentally ill in our states, because that’s such an important concern.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We are well to be reminded of that.

Dick Pryor in Oklahoma City, thank you. Julie Philipp in Rochester, N.Y., WXXI, Jose Luis Jimenez, KPBS-San Diego, and Karen Kasler in Columbus, Ohio, we thank you, all of you.

JULIE PHILIPP: My pleasure. Thanks, Judy.

KAREN KASLER: Thank you.

DICK PRYOR: Thank you. Thank you.

JOSE LUIS JIMENEZ: You’re welcome.