WASHINGTON -- It is when there is a human element to his presidency that Barack Obama tends to stand the tallest. And on Wednesday evening, as he spoke to 14,000-plus at a memorial service at the University of Arizona, there was, if nothing else, an emotional honesty to what he had to say.
To a nation looking for clarity, Obama didn't pretend to have all the answers. There is, he noted, a tendency to demand "order" from "chaos," to try and "make sense out of that which seems senseless." Life doesn't always comply.
To a political culture looking for scapegoats, he asked for maturity. A lack of civility hadn't caused the shooting of 20 in Tucson, nor would it provide relief. "What we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other," said Obama. "That we cannot do. That we cannot do."
And for a community mourning, the president assumed only the role of fellow griever, trying to draw threads of optimism from the wreckage. "If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost," Obama declared, in a speech that his own aides insisted was one of his best.
As he turned his address for the first, then the second, and finally a third time to the passing of nine-year-old Christina-Taylor Green, it was impossible not to think of the president as a father, gripped by doubt as to whether he could respond to a similar tragedy. At one point he paused to swallow tears -- his wife, Michelle, openly crying in her front row seat -- before calling out for an elevated sense of purpose.
"I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it," he said. "All of us -- we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations."
Challenging an audience to live up to a child's expectation would seem noteworthy only for the low setting of the bar. But in the past few days, the conversation surrounding the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) -- who, Obama announced, had opened her eyes shortly before his speech -- had moved from shock and grief to something far more callous.
Even as the president spoke, a debate waged among Twitter and cable pundits as to whether the tone of the memorial was somehow off-putting. Earlier that morning, Sarah Palin had accused the media of "blood libel" for casting her in the role of cheerleader for the extremists.
It was, as if, the actual shootings had become secondary players -- as if the human element had been lost in a political drama.
"I believe we can be better," Obama said, in a line that seemed to mean more for those watching on TV then those in the stadium. "Those who died here, those who saved lives here -- they help me believe. 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. 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."