Dionne, Continetti Discuss Obama's Speech

NPR's Michele Norris speaks with political commentators E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard, and NPR's Mara Liasson about President Obama's remarks this evening at the memorial event in Tucson.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

I believe we can do better. Those words tonight from President Obama addressing thousands of mourners gathered to celebrate the lives of the six men and women killed in Saturday's shooting rampage in Tucson, Arizona. His speech, more than 30 minutes in length, was at its core a call to action. How can we honor the fallen, he asked, how can we be true to their memory?

President Obama did not weigh in on the debate that has been raging since Saturday over the relationship between heated political rhetoric and violence, but he did not exactly ignore it either.

P: If, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy; it did not, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

NORRIS: President Obama speaking earlier this evening at the McKale Memorial Center on the campus of the University of Arizona.

For more on the president's speech, I'm joined by E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and The Brookings Institution, and Matthew Continetti, associate editor at The Weekly Standard. And also here in the studio once again is national political correspondent Mara Liasson. All three of you, I'm glad that you're with us.

E.J., I'm going to begin with you. What struck you most about the president's words tonight? He was seeming to be the healer-in-chief, the preacher-in-chief at one point.

MR: That's exactly what I felt. I felt he was much more pastor-in-chief than a politician. This was very personal. It was rooted - so much of the speech was rooted in the biographies of the victims and of those who have survived.

He came back again and again - Gabrielle Giffords, he had some wonderful moments about that - but he came back again and again to nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green, an A student, a dancer, he said, a gymnast and a swimmer. He did, as we've said already, deal with some of the ongoing controversies, but he didn't take sides in any of these controversies. It wasn't in some ways at the center of this speech.

I was struck, for example, by a line - it probably won't get much play in the press the way all of the talk about the need for civility got - but, you know, he said we may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us. That's what you'd hear in church and it came with a lot of scriptural references.

NORRIS: Yeah, you heard a lot of we and us, the collective we.

Matthew Continetti, the president, as we said earlier, was trying to strike just the right tone here. Do you think that he threaded that needle?

NORRIS: Yeah, I think he did. And I think Obama is at his best when he's at the 30,000-foot-above-ground level, when he can rise above taking sides in any partisan debate like that, which has unfolded since the events on Saturday, and he did that. And as E.J. said, he talked about discourse, but he didn't take a position in the middle of the fight right now.

A: the events of last month, that lame-duck session where Obama was able to strike bipartisan deals with the Republicans in the Senate; and then look ahead two weeks to his upcoming State of the Union address where I think he's going to strike a similar tone, an attempt to reach across the aisle and deal with the new realities in Congress.

So I think the president is on his way to a successful second half of his first term.

NORRIS: And Mara, I'm going to bring you into this in just a minute. We have an unfortunate benchmark with which to measure him. I mean, he spoke very quickly after the tragic shootings at Fort Hood. If you compare this speech with that address, what do you see and hear? Do you see growth there, differences in the way - I mean, this speech was also a lot of storytelling, which is really where he's at his strongest.

NORRIS: That's right. And you also see a president who just has more experience. He's been in the job longer. He had a huge political setback last November that I think he's working through. And so he also has personal ties to Congressman Giffords and such, so you see a more political - rather a more mature political figure in this speech that we heard tonight.

NORRIS: Mara, there has been much debate over gun control right now in the wake of this shooting, particularly whether people who have mental issues should have access to guns, particularly extended magazine clips. Do we hear anything in the president's speech that might provide us a hint about what position he might take on this or where he might land on the issue of gun control?

MARA LIASSON: Well, it's hard to know whether he's willing to ask the Democratic Party to take up an issue that they had decided was pretty radioactive for them and had kind of given up on. But he did say we shouldn't be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of this kind of violence in the future. At another time he said, you know, there's a debate about the merits of gun safety laws, the adequacy of our mental health systems, and much of that process of debating these things is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.

So it sounds like he's saying those are legitimate things to discuss in the wake of this. Whether or not the White House is going to get behind any kind of legislation is unclear.

NORRIS: I was struck by his standing back as a referee in these fights, just from the passages Mara read. He was not going out on any limb in this speech. Now, maybe you could see why he decided he did not want this speech to be controversial at all in that sense. Nonetheless, there were no signs here that he is ready to jump into any fight for even very limited gun control.

NORRIS: Interesting tableau there: He's sitting there in the front row; Jan Brewer is there just behind him; a newly-elected member of Congress who had at one point called him the worst president in the world, Dan Quayle's son, who was seated just right behind him. Do you think that this call for a sort of higher level of discourse will take hold here?

NORRIS: Uh, no, because it never does. We're flawed people and we always tend to fall back on partisan heuristics and mindsets. But it was - moments like these does show, I think, the fact of national unity and our common humanity, and that's what maybe we can take comfort, in sights like that which we saw today.

NORRIS: I think that - there's a big part of me that agrees with Matt, that no. And you see the debate that just broke out fiercely about the role of our discourse and promoting events like this, and, you know, Sarah Palin's comments today, so you'd say, no, there's not a chance. However, I do think there are a significant number of people in both parties who are just sort of fed up with some of the division, who really look at an event like this and say gee, we do have some obligation to pull back.

So in the short run, there isn't a lot of hope there. But in the longer run, I think a lot of people are just tired of this kind of division. And an event like this does shake people beyond what they sometimes say in public.

NORRIS: Mara, as someone who spends a lot of time at the White House, what can you tell us just quickly about how the president put these remarks together?

LIASSON: Well, apparently he worked on it himself. He worked on it for many hours. What I think is so interesting is that the White House has really been looking for opportunities to get him back to what they call first principles. And this was one and they took advantage of it.

NORRIS: And by the way, as we prepare to say goodbye, we're listening here to a song called "Simple Gifts." It's performed by the Arizona Choir at tonight's memorial service that was in Tucson at the University of Arizona.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIMPLE GIFTS")

NORRIS: This is NPR.

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