Sadly, this country has been through enough such episodes that there is now something of a playbook for politicians and political operatives in how to respond.
That’s not to suggest that the words that came from the president and his challenger were anything but genuine and heartfelt. The two candidates spoke as political leaders at a time the country looks for those in power (or aspiring to it) to help provide comfort and context to what is frightening and irrational.
But they also spoke as who they are, as parents, and in Romney’s case, as a grandparent. Each, no doubt, could imagine the horror of losing a child or grandchild in the early-morning hours Friday in the movie theater in Aurora, Colo.
“Michelle and I will be fortunate enough to hug our girls a little tighter tonight, and I’m sure you will do the same with your children,” Obama said in Florida.
“Each of us will hold our kids a little closer,” Romney said in New Hampshire.
The Colorado massacre came at a moment when the presidential campaign had become white-hot in its intensity and its negativity — at greater volume than the country has ever witnessed this far ahead of the election. The movie theater rampage forced a sudden and necessary change in plans. Campaigns try to construct narratives to shape reality and perceptions. The shooting was a shocking dose of reality that put all else in perspective.
The hiatus in the political wars will be temporary, by necessity. The country faces a very large decision in November, and both campaigns deserve the opportunity to make their cases as vigorously as they can. Not all of it will be pretty. Negative ads will not disappear; nor will the enormous and constant fundraising efforts required to fund those ads cease or even slow down in any significant way.
But at this moment of pause, it would be useful to recall the president’s words at the time of another such tragedy not so long ago.
It was at the beginning of this presidential cycle, in January 2011, after the shooting in Tucson that killed six people and left 13 wounded, including then-congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who has since resigned her seat while concentrating on her miraculous recovery.
Consoler in chief
Obama, in the role Americans now ask their presidents to play, spoke at the memorial service after the shooting.
At the time, the country in its shock was convulsed by a debate over whether political rhetoric and tactics had somehow encouraged the shooter. Had the deep partisanship and polarization helped create a climate that somehow invited violence? It was a time not only of grieving but also of finger-pointing and recrimination.