WASHINGTON — Under high expectations to provide healing, President Barack Obama on Wednesday will try to convert the horror of the Arizona shootings into a moment of national unity centering his memorial speech in Tucson on the lives of the victims and the heroism of those who rushed to stop the madness. The president was crafting his speech on Tuesday, and his aides were reluctant to discuss it even broadly in its unfinished form, other than to say it will emphasize the memories of those lost. Still, Obama's comments since the shooting on Saturday, his experience in dealing with other tragedies and history's guide offer signs about how he is likely to respond to this moment. At the service Wednesday night, Obama's main mission will be to honor those who were killed by describing them in personal terms, so the country remembers how they lived, not how they died. He will seek to assure families in grief that the whole country is behind them.
And to those grasping for answers after the assassination attempt on Democratic U.S Rep Gabrielle Giffords, Obama will likely explore how "we can come together as a stronger nation" in the aftermath of the tragedy, as he put it earlier this week. What the speech is not likely to be: An examination of divisive partisan rhetoric, or whether it is connected in any way to the rampage that led to the killing of six people and the wounding of 14 others. Standing amidst the people of a grieving community, Obama is expected to focus on a memorial, not a commentary on political civility. This moment as chief consoler comes to all presidents – often many times. And this will not be Obama's first. Among the events that people remember the most, recent history alone recalls George W. Bush with a bullhorn amid the rubble of Sept. 11, 2001; Bill Clinton's finding new leadership after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995; and Ronald Reagan's response to the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, when he spoke about being "pained to the core." For Obama, the most instructive lesson may likely be one from his own presidency.
He led he memorial at the Fort Hood Army post in November 2009, trying to help a shaken nation cope with a mass shooting there that left 13 people dead and 29 wounded. He spent the first part of that speech naming the people who had been killed and describing how they spent their lives; he used the second half to remind everyone of American endurance and justice.
Obama, in April 2010, also eulogized 29 coal workers killed in the worst mine accident in a generation. He said they lived as they died, pursuing the American Dream. Even before accepting the invitation to speak at the University of Arizona memorial service, Obama previewed his own thinking. "It's going to be important, I think, for the country as a whole, as well as the people of Arizona, to feel as if we are speaking directly to our sense of loss, but also speaking to our hopes for the future and how out of this tragedy we can come together as a stronger nation," the president said Tuesday. He will be attending with his wife, first lady Michelle Obama. Obama began working on his speech Monday night. He is expected to devote the bulk of it memorializing the victims.
The six people killed were attending a community outreach gathering, sponsored by the lawmaker Giffords, outside a grocery store. The six were a 9-year-old girl, Arizona's chief federal judge, a 30-year-old aide to Giffords and three retirees who are in their mid-to-late 70's. The president is expected to offer words of comfort to the injured survivors of the shooting. And he is sure to commend, as he has once in public already, the courage of people who intervened in desperation to help Giffords, tackle the gunman and grab his ammunition. "When the people can hear the president of the United States talk about their neighbor, their husband, their daughter, it is incredibly comforting and uplifting at the same time," said Kevin Sullivan, who served as communications director for President George W. Bush in his second term, a period during which a mass shooting at Virginia Tech University shook the nation.
In the current case, the accused shooter, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, is being held without bail in a Phoenix jail.
So far, Obama has said nothing about the debates that have splintered out of the shooting, including whether the violence can fairly be connected whatsoever to the vitriol of today's partisan politics – or, more broadly, whether this is a time for Obama to renew his call for more civil American debate.
Obama's approach has been to let the criminal investigation unfold and keep the country looking forward; the timing and the setting will help drive any broader message he has. "This is about the grief of the victims and the families who have been affected," Sullivan said. "There should be no element of political commentary, because that would undermine the president's natural ability and skill and uplifting the families." Thousands of people are expected to attend the memorial service at the university's basketball arena. The event is open to the public. Students, state and federal officials and the school president are all expected to speak, along with Obama.
The president will be joined by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, another sign of the signal he wants to send: U.S. solidarity.
And back in Washington on Wednesday, in the chamber where Giffords serves, the House will honor her and all the victims of the shooting, and those who sought to help them.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Mark Sherman contributed to this report.