01/12/2011 10:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama in Tucson: The Question of the Applause

"The heartbreaking events of this weekend," said one young lady, early on in the evening -- one of Gabby's interns. She got a round of enthusiastic applause. It kind of threw me. But it was just one of multiple rounds of applause to come -- they were a constant throughout, even before Obama, the headliner, rose to speak. A long line of dignitaries and the suddenly dignified, ordinary folks who happened to be proximate to the event, preceded him. And there was this weird applause throughout.

Applause rocked the house for Professor Gonzalez, who gave the Native American blessing (it seemed endless) at the beginning. He stuck in a couple of digs in the direction of ancient history (pronouncing "Tucson" in the old Indian way, before faux correcting himself, also to applause (but not so much)).

And the president of the University never missed a chance to hype his school, going so far as to cite the "outstanding leadership" of Governor Jan Brewer as he introduced her. And the kids in the bleachers again broke out in applause that was utterly indistinguishable from what they might have done if they were in a TV studio for a live game show. I was getting disoriented. I couldn't believe that this applause was as mindless as it sounded. Then Jan Brewer was saying we will go forward unbowed and undefeated and there was a HUGE outburst of applause. So maybe the applause was defiant? Were they applauding themselves for being there? Nowadays, when we get together to "heal" after a "great trauma," do we clap for our own courage?

Then the Prez of U of A laid it on for Obama -- he knew that this was his big draw, he knew that this is why there are 14,000 people in the building and 13,000 outside, taking it in virtually. And indeed the clapping and yelling knew no bounds at that point. Obama said something like there is nothing he could say that "could heal the hole torn in your hearts." They didn't exactly clap for that -- but within a couple of sentences, when he said that Gabby is a fighter and will prevail, the hole in their hearts seemed to fill pretty quick, and they clapped and clapped again.

Then Obama mentioned that Judge Roll was a graduate of the U of A Law School -- and there was a wave of applause for that shout-out to the good old alma mater. Then he mentioned a man who covered his wife's body with his own and was shot to death as a result. The dead man got a round of applause too.

Then came the semi-climax. With the husband's permission, Obama shared the private information that during his brief visit to Gabby's bedside -- she opened her eyes! That meant, Obama said, that she "knows we are rooting for her." The applause busted out big time on that. Then he did a Reagan shout-out to every ordinary person who helped out on that day and the place went nuts -- clapping and yelling for everyday heroes. Obama knew what he was doing. That much I was clear on.

Then Obama went on to tell us how we can see ourselves in these people who were shot and died. He went through the victims one by one and made the identifications specific -- our husbands and wives (and "life-partners") and children, one by one.

So what I wondered was if all this applause testified to unprecedented depths of narcissistic shallowness -- or was it some new way of defying death and despair, some postmodern Irish wake sort of thing? Or both?

But then came the old Obama from 2008, for the real climax. Front and center, he gave us Christina-Taylor Green -- the slaughtered 9-year-old who was born on 9/11/01 and was an enthusiastic member of her student council in elementary school. In her innocence, Obama told us, she imagined a politics and a country through her child's eyes. He then told us -- again to great applause, huge applause -- that we should come together and try to live up to this 9-year-old child's image of our country.

Well. What can I say? Ronald Reagan, the greatest of identity politics practitioners, couldn't have done better.

Is that a good thing?