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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Dionne, Continetti Discuss Obama's Speech

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Dionne, Continetti Discuss Obama's Speech

Dionne, Continetti Discuss Obama's Speech

Dionne, Continetti Discuss Obama's Speech

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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.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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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