Up Front

Web Chat: Obama’s Arizona Speech and How Presidents Address Tragedy

Stephen Hess

On January 12, Senior Fellow Emeritus Stephen Hess, a veteran of the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations and former presidential speech writer, took your questions in a live web chat on what Obama might in say response to the tragedy involving Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the notes that other presidents have struck at critical moments in history.

12:30 David Mark: Thanks for joining us today. Let’s get started.

12:30 [Comment From Andrew: ] What do you think the president will say in his speech?

12:30 [Comment From Emily: ] What other leaders do you think Obama will look to for precedent as he prepares?

12:31 Stephen Hess: Think of this as you would a eulogy or memorial service for a friend in your church or town hall. In a sense, that’s what we’re asking the president to do in a somewhat grander fashion. But nevertheless, you start with a very personal message about the people who have just died and who you care about.

12:33 Stephen Hess: This means when you search for precedents of past events that presidents have been called upon to memorialize, this is not 9/11 and George W. Bush’s marvelous remarks, it’s not The Challenger and President Ronald Reagan’s marvelous remarks, it’s event not Ft. Hood – as an example from President Obama’s reign. This is more like Columbine High School or the Virginia Tech incident. It is very sad in its magnitude, but it is not a defining moment for the nation or in fact for the presidency. If I were a presidential speech writer going to the archives, I would first look to what Clinton said after Columbine High School or what George Bush said after Virginia Tech.

12:33 [Comment From Rick: ] What does this tragedy say about partisanship in the United States?

12:35 Stephen Hess: I think at this point, we must be very careful in generalizing. What we seem to know is this was an act committed by one very disturbed young man, probably with the characteristics we now recognize as schizophrenic – which can turn homicidal – without any very specific ideological or partisan implications. Unless we know otherwise later, that’s about where we should leave that discussion, which also means for the president tonight that it is more important than anything else that he keep away from the political message involved. There will be times later for us to discuss all of these questions, because they are important.

12:35 [Comment From Liana: ] Does this event make you question the type of rhetoric used in American politics today?

12:36 Stephen Hess: This is a question that is very dear to me, because in fact in the 2000 election, I wrote a book called Campaign Etiquette, in which there was a section on vocabulary and metaphors –  particularly on how in America, we have always turned to images of warfare for our political life. And that’s disturbing – why need it be? Why are we so limited in our own speech that we have to go back to questions of battlegrounds and war rooms and so forth? This is another time that I think we should remind ourselves of that and see if possibly we can do better.

12:36 [Comment From Bert: ] What should Congress be doing in a time like this to encourage unity rather than divisiveness in the country?

12:38 Stephen Hess: I think after the lame-duck session and some of the comments of the new Republican leadership, notably speaker Boehner, I was left with the sense that there are areas of common ground. My hunch would be that they would settle around the questions of the deficit, since both parties are worried about that issue and in December there were two very effective commissions. Assuming the president picks up on this theme in his State of the Union address, I have a feeling that the leadership of the Republican party would be apt to look for areas of agreement.

Momentarily, before everyone gets overheated about 2012 and an election year, this could be a useful time to come together as much as two parties with two different ideologies are able to do.

12:38 [Comment From Jon: ] Do you think that this is the tipping point or rather the turning point in extreme partisanship in the media? I find myself wondering if it can get much worse.

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12:41 Stephen Hess: What has happened of course is that now everyone has their own partisan media outlet. It used to be, when there was ABC, CBS and NBC, that we listened to the same agenda. Now we listen to an agenda set forth by people who prefer FOX to MSNBC and vice versa. This promotes partisanship, obviously, but it strangely is in the long-standing American tradition. The objective journalism that we know was really a twentieth century invention of the mainstream newspapers that had to appeal to everyone to sell their goods. So this is disturbing, but frankly, not un-American.

12:41 [Comment From Sarah: ] What does the tragedy involving Giffords means for Democrats?

12:43 Stephen Hess: Giffords was a relatively conservative Democrat who was part of a group large enough to move the party somewhat off the left course. They were pretty well decimated in the 2010 election, and she was a unique survivor of that election. I think it’s worthwhile for Democrats, and others, to recall how she managed in a conservative state in a conservative district – that had once be represented by a Republican – to maintain a dialogue that made her not just one of 435 representatives, but a rather special one. Since this tragedy has happened to her, it is at least worthwhile to recall politically who she is.

12:43 David Mark: There’s a natural impetus to pass legislation in the wake of the tragedy. Post-9/11 saw the Patriot Act and several other measures. Will we see action in Congress or a cooling-off period?

12:45 Stephen Hess: There are two types of legislation that could come out of the specifics of this tragedy. One, of course, would be something to do with gun control, an it’s quite clear that won’t happen. The other would have to do with mental health. That would quite an exceptional and useful thing if the nation could turn on this question – there are a lot of people who have these illnesses who can be treated, and that requires special resources and training.

12:45 [Comment From Larry stanton: ] Would a discussion of how we handle our mentally ill be more appropriate than implying this man’s actions were in someway political in origin?

12:46 Stephen Hess: Adding on to my previous answer, at a time of such fiscal restraint, mental illness gets very low on our priorities, unfortunately. It’s going to be badly hit until the economy turns around – in terms of what legislators are willing to spend. Those that are advocates for various aspects of mental illness should organize and mobilize and use the momentum that this tragedy gives their issue.

12:46 [Comment From James: ] One possible solution to reducing partisanship in this country would be to limit time spent campaigning. Would a 6 month or less campaign season be unreasonable or unconstitutional? I would say it is a very fair way to even out political races and get our legislators back to their job of governing.

12:48 Stephen Hess: This can work in a parliamentary system – and does – such as in England. The problem here of course is that our system is continuous, and anybody can start campaigning any time they want. I really don’t see how we could do otherwise. I’ve constantly made proposals to shorten the presidential selection process, but how can you stop any of the dozens of the people who want to be the next president from talking to their friends and gathering their staffs? It’s one of those very nice ideas that simply won’t come to pass.

12:50 [Comment From Mike: ] What do you think about the media bringing Sarah Palin and her platform into the discussion?

12:51 [Comment From Daniel: ] Fair or not, what damage might this incident inflict on Sarah Palin in the context of a potential 2012 bid?

12:51 Stephen Hess: Certainly, she is going to be in the cross hairs for a while – it’s the nature of her own rhetoric. she will have mighty defenders as well. We’ll just have to see if there’s any serious fallout to her future political career. I’m one of those people who is not betting at the moment that she will run for president. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that she will be a major force in her party and in the political conversation through the next presidential election.

12:51 [Comment From Sam: ] As one news report said, it’s news you would expect to hear out of Afghanistan. What is there to say about national security when a person with a gun can so easily attack a congressional figure and can anything ever be done? On a side note, to what extent did Arizona gun laws fail not because of the shooter but because he was tackled by bystanders who could legally own guns to protect themselves?

12:53 Stephen Hess: This certainly throws a searchlight on the issue of gun control, especially as it comes in a state that is permissive as it is. I think you might be off-base, though when you put this in the context of Afghanistan – the guns there are of another order and used for other reasons. But it will be hard to make too strong and fast a case of Arizona when in fact Congresswoman Giffords was a strong supporter of firearms. It just doesn’t comfortably fit at a time when we are all hoping for her recovery.

12:59 David Mark: President Obama has had a mixed oratorical record of late. What tone does he need to strike in Tucson?

12:59 Stephen Hess: I think since we’re here waiting to hear a speech from the President of the United States, it’s not inappropriate to talk about Barack Obama as a speaker. In many ways, he’s surprised us, partly because he was so magnificent in the campaign. He was elected in large part because he turned out to be a great orator, starting out with his speech at the Democratic convention where most people saw him for the first time.

As president, he has been otherwise on many occasions. It’s almost as if he turned off the switch as campaigner and rhetoritician and turned on the switch as law professor. He’s been focused on specifics and facts-driven, when most American people liked him because of his grand style, and he could have been more effective as president in that way. Tonight is an opportunity to show how good he is, but we must be cautious because this should be a short speech – it should not be grand. Its simplicity would be its importance.

I think perhaps he’s learning his lessons himself, since a whole world of pundits have been reminding him about what has been different between Obama the campaigner and Obama the President.

12:59 David Mark: Thanks for the chat, folks.

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