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Shields and Brooks on Obama’s Tucson Speech, Calls for Political Civility

January 14, 2011 at 5:25 PM EDT
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Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks analyze the week's news, including the president's address at the Tucson memorial service.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, is the Tucson tragedy likely to change the caliber and kind of the political discourse in this country?

MARK SHIELDS: I’m hopeful, Jim. I really am.

I think that it is a time when Americans have stopped. I think that the leadership, certainly the president’s, this week, and I think Speaker Boehner as well, has been thoughtful and measured. We’ll see an early test and a real road test in the health-care debate next week.

JIM LEHRER: What did you think of the president’s speech, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I thought it was wonderful. I thought it was — like everyone else, it seems, I thought it was one of the best speeches he’s given as president. It was a speech he was sort of born to give, someone who is a natural transcender of differences.

I guess the thing that struck me was, A., that he didn’t try to have a pat theory about why what happened happened. But he used it as a sabbath, as an example, as an occasion to step back.

And, also, what struck me was the uplifting nature of the event. And some people have sort of objected to that, that it should be a moment of mourning and loss.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: But many funerals are not like that. Many are celebrations of life and celebrations of the possibility of renewal. And both he and the students in the audience contributed to that. And I thought it was appropriate to do so.

And I think the lesson of the week is never underestimate the power a great speech, because it really did — there was controversy, Sturm und Drang in the first couple days of the week after the shooting. But, after that speech, I really think there’s been a psychological, emotional shift nationwide among Republicans and Democrats, which leaves me and I think a lot of people a little more hopeful that things — you know, that there could be some lasting residue.

But I’m not sure it will happen in the health-care debate. I think we will have that debate. It will be fine. We should have that debate. But I think it creates an occasion for people to create a practical agenda to go forward.

And I think the president is thinking about that for the State of the Union address. There are some issues like tax reform. There are other issues that both parties could sort of work together on and have a conversation about. And I think the events of this week have really made that a little more likely.

JIM LEHRER: Now, you agree with that; things are a little more likely to happen?

MARK SHIELDS: About the speech?

JIM LEHRER: The speech, first of all, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: First of all, I think that there are a limited number of times in any president’s career that he has a window where the public looks at him anew. Usually, it follows a tragedy. Certainly, President Reagan at the time the Challenger, President Johnson upon assuming office after the assassination, both speeches of which I went back and looked at this week.

And this was a chance for President Obama. President Obama’s speeches have always been quite cerebral, quite thoughtful, well-crafted, well-delivered, but there has never been that emotional connection with the American people. His own supporters and admirers have been concerned about this.

JIM LEHRER: Said that, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And I think, this week, he did.

I think he spoke to and for in — in a way the country needed it. And he reaffirmed that we were a good country. And he did it, I thought, in a way that he hasn’t done it before, very personally, through the lives of the people who have been the victims.

And he got particularly affecting, I thought, when he spoke about Christina. And, as the father of girls of that age, he himself undoubtedly and obviously was moved. So, I think — I really do think it was a very important speech for the country at a unifying time. The country needed unifying.

David’s absolutely right that he did not — there weren’t cheap shots in it. There was no attempt to score political points. I thought he did what a president is supposed to do and did it in a way that people now look at him with different eyes.

DAVID BROOKS: And I think he took a risk, especially in that passage about Christina, because there was the statement on the book about her when she was born, the statement that she would — that children should dance in the rain puddles.

JIM LEHRER: She was born on…

DAVID BROOKS: On September 11.

JIM LEHRER: … 9/11, right.

DAVID BROOKS: And so he then issued a line which I — when he said it struck me as sort of un-Obama-like, which that now she’s dancing in the puddles of heaven.

And there has been some discussion about whether that was cheesy or sort of not up to the rhetoric. I thought it was absolutely right for him to go for that, because it was an emotional connection. And it had a bit of a Hallmark card, but I thought it was him unbuttoning and really using the moment to sort of throw himself, trustingly, on the audience.

And that’s something he hasn’t always done. And, so, I thought he was absolutely right to do that.

JIM LEHRER: What about — Mark, what about David’s point that some people took a hit on the speech — or on the event because they said, well, it was supposed to be a memorial service, and yet people were shouting and clapping like it was a pep rally?

Did that bother you?

MARK SHIELDS: It was — it was jarring to hear it at first. You realize it’s in a field house. It’s not a cathedral. It’s not a chapel. It is a field house.

And it was a community, Tucson, which, for people who haven’t been in Arizona, it’s the place you want to be in Arizona.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: It’s the college town. It’s really a wonderful city. And it was shaken to its roots. And I think there was an emotional need to affirm. And I think this was a form that the affirming took, was the cheering.

There was one observation that was made this week I just have to pass on to you by a friend of mine, Allen Ginsberg, who is an historian up in Maine. And he said, this week, we saw a white, Catholic, Republican federal judge murdered on his way to greet a Democratic woman, member of Congress, who was his friend and was Jewish. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year-old Mexican-American college student, who saved her, and eventually by a Korean-American combat surgeon.

JIM LEHRER: Dr. Rhee.

MARK SHIELDS: Dr. Rhee, that’s right.

And then it was all eulogized and explained by our African-American president. And, in a tragic event, that’s a remarkable statement about the country.

JIM LEHRER: So, then, now what happens?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, we go to politics.

And there’s ways to conduct politics, and there’s ways not to conduct politics. And, like I said, I think speeches are great. And speeches make a difference, as we saw this week, but they have to be built on. And I think they have to be built on with two things.

First, like I said, they have to be built on with a sense that we’re going to have a practical agenda, that we can work together.

JIM LEHRER: Practical.

DAVID BROOKS: Actions really change behavior. Thoughts don’t, so much.

But, second — and more deeply — I think what has to come is a sense of humility, that the reason people behave civilly to one another is because, alone, no one has the resources to really conduct an intelligent policy, that you need the conversation, you need the back-and-forth, and that’s where you get your meaning.

And, if you don’t respect that conversation, if you think you can do it alone, your side has 100 percent of the truth, then of course you’re going to behave uncivilly.

And if you don’t have that humility, that sense that you need the other side, it’s going to be hard to be civil. But we have to have that sense of civility, that we need the back-and-forth, or else we will be carried away by the falsehood in our own positions.

JIM LEHRER: And the big test is coming next week on the health-care reform repeal.

MARK SHIELDS: I think a first test really is — and I think it will be a question of restraint and respect. All of us have to remind ourselves that, when I say that David is 100 percent right 42 percent of the time, that maybe I’m 42 percent right 100 percent of the time.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, I think there is a humility and a reminder that, you know, we’re not all in this alone.

I mean, I think it was Jesse Jackson that said, we came over in different ships, but we are all in the same boat. And I think that has to be acknowledged, admitted, and worked upon at this point.

One of the encouraging signs was Mark Udall, the senator…

JIM LEHRER: Yes, I was going to ask you about that.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the senator from Colorado, freshman Democratic senator.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And he’s proposed — we have all watched this puppeteering in the State of the Union.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Our side gets up and cheers. Then the other side gets up and cheers. And we sit on our hands. Then they sit on their hands.

And he suggested that they all sit together, I mean, you know, not sit on strict Democratic side and Republican side. Lisa Murkowski, the Republican senator from Alaska, has cosigned a letter with him. Nineteen senators have agreed, including John McCain. Ten of the 19, interestingly enough, a number of them Republicans, are women. Maybe that will be the leading in civility.

But that is an encouraging sign. And even Kevin McCarthy, the Republican whip in the House, has sort of given it a semi-endorsement anyway.

But that’s a step, I mean, that we can sit and talk with each other and we’re human beings.

JIM LEHRER: Why would that be important?

DAVID BROOKS: Because the chief dynamic in the Congress is the herd mentality, my herd and your herd.

I have stopped — when a member of Congress starts telling me about the other the party, I almost want to stop listening, because I know what is going to follow is going to be false, because they just don’t know the people in the other party very well.

And so they get this herd dynamic. And it is materialized in the way they sit together and meet together and react as one. And, if you actually physically interspersed them, I think it would defang that herd mentality, and actually have a material difference, because the geographical way they organize their lives is — has an effect.

I was on the Senate floor before the session with a senator, and he was showing me the desks. And I wanted to go see the Kennedy desk, but he was a Republican. And he said, oh, it’s somewhere over there. It’s like he didn’t quite know where it was, because it was on the other side of the floor. And that’s…

JIM LEHRER: Well, I mean, it is a room. It’s not very far.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. It’s not a very big room.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: Right.

DAVID BROOKS: And he is a great senator, but, you know, there’s that difference. And it’s worth breaking up on every occasion.

JIM LEHRER: You think it could matter? You think it could really matter, too, right, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I’m hopeful, Jim. I mean, it’s subject to verification. And you don’t want to be unrealistic. But I’m hopeful. I really am.

JIM LEHRER: What about issues like gun control and things like that that have been mentioned that could — changes in gun laws, let’s put it that way, that could happen as a result of that? Do you see anything like that falling out from this?

MARK SHIELDS: No. As somebody who doesn’t use guns and hasn’t touched a firearm since I left the Marine Corps, and don’t view them as sporting goods — I view catcher’s mitts as sporting goods — they’re instruments of death and destruction. So, I state my bias at the outset.

But I was looking at the state of Arizona yesterday. And, in Arizona, in order to cut toenails or to give somebody a shampoo, you have to have a background check and a license. To sell minnows and live bait, you have to have a license and a background check. To be a pest control applicator, license, and state — the state insists upon this.

But to go in and buy a Glock 9mm handgun with a 31-round magazine attachment…

JIM LEHRER: People need to keep in mind what that means. I mean, that’s 30 rounds that you can fire in a few seconds.

MARK SHIELDS: All right, seven seconds, you can shoot 31 bullets, and the death and destruction — that’s 20 people whose lives and hundreds others whose lives have been changed permanently by that.

But I will tell you, tragically, support for gun-control legislation, with the one exception of the blip after Columbine, has declined in this country over the past 20 years, from 80 percent believing that we had though do something to limit, control, to limit this, to now we’re down to 43, 44 percent who believe that.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see it, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I agree that the control needs to be — especially on the magazines, which are no — have no legitimate sporting use. The prognostication, I also agree with Mark, that it’s very slim chances there will be increased gun legislation out of this.

I — one thing I do think will happen is, if you are at a college or at an organization, and somebody starts acting bizarrely, in a way that is repeatingly, you are going to pay a lot more attention to that.

And I think there should be some — some — there will be changes just in terms of people’s awareness of what might happen if this person spins out of control. And, personally, I think there have to be some changes in whether we can involuntarily treat people who are clearly mentally ill.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

David, Mark, thank you both.