Obama: Tragedy Challenges Everyone To Be Better

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More than 26,000 people gathered Wednesday night at the University of Arizona for a tribute to the victims of Saturday's shooting in Tucson. Several federal officials spoke, ending with a speech from President Obama that often had the crowd cheering on its feet.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

When President Obama came to Tucson last night, thousands of people filled a basketball arena. Thousands more spilled over into a nearby football stadium, and a nation was listening after the killings of six people and the wounding of a member of Congress.

The president said he'd come to pray with the crowd, and after the shooting, which happened at a political gathering, the president called on Americans to treat each other more civilly.

We begin our coverage with NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO: President Obama went first to the hospital where Congresswoman Giffords and other victims who survived Saturday's shooting are recovering. The motorcade passed a woman holding a sign that thanked the Obamas and said: Tucson is hurting.

University of Arizona student Greg McCormick was waiting for a glimpse of the president, and waiting to hear what he'd say at the memorial service.

GREG MCCORMICK: It's definitely about leadership. It's moments like this that actually pull our country together, and who better to be at the center of that than the president of the United States of America?

SHAPIRO: But the president began his speech by saying tonight I'm just one of you.

BARACK OBAMA: I have come here tonight as an American who, like all Americans, kneels to pray with you today and will stand by you tomorrow.

SHAPIRO: He described in detail the lives of those who died last Saturday: community volunteers, retirees, husbands, wives, a federal judge, and nine- year-old Christina Taylor Green.

OBAMA: Our hearts are broken by their sudden passing. Our hearts are broken - and yet our hearts also have reason for fullness.

SHAPIRO: He talked about the people who survived the shooting, those like Congresswoman Giffords, who are fighting to recover, and the heroes who helped save them. One of those saviors spoke earlier in the program. Twenty-year-old Daniel Hernandez was an intern for Giffords. He rushed to her side after she was shot in the head. Yesterday he said: Save the title of hero for others.

DANIEL HERNANDEZ: I thank you for this opportunity but I say we must reject the title of hero and reserve it for those who deserve it, and those who deserve it are the public servants and the first responders and the people who have made sure that they have dedicated their life to taking care of others.

SHAPIRO: President Obama would not allow it.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: And Daniel, I'm sorry, you may deny it, but we've decided you are a hero because you ran through the chaos to minister to your boss, and tended to her wounds and helped keep her alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)

SHAPIRO: Mr. Obama said the actions of those who lived and who died last Saturday are a challenge to everyone to be a better person.

OBAMA: If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: After a long sustained applause, President Obama completed the thought.

OBAMA: Let's make sure it's not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle.

SHAPIRO: It's a version of the plea Mr. Obama has been making ever since he was a senator, to disagree without being disagreeable. His argument last night was: Don't do it because I told you to. Do it because those who died would have wanted you to.

OBAMA: We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another, that's entirely up to us.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: And I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: In the audience, at least for the moment, it seemed as though it could be true. The front rows were full of lawmakers and judges, Republicans and Democrats, who are often at each other's throats. But on this night there was no visible hostility among them. The president ended his memorial speech by saying he believes in this idealized dream of America because a child like Christina Taylor Green believed in it. She served on her student council. She valued public service. And last Saturday morning she wanted to meet her congresswoman.

OBAMA: I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us - we should do everything we can to do to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)

SHAPIRO: As the stadium cameras panned across the crowd, the large screens overhead showed people in the audience wiping away tears.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, travelling with the president.

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