President Again Takes On Role of 'Consoler in Chief'

President Bush stops on the Virginia Tech drill field to write
President Bush stops on the Virginia Tech drill field to write "God Bless, George Bush" on a cardboard "VT" sign. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 18, 2007

President Bush addressed a somber convocation at Virginia Tech yesterday, telling thousands of grieving students, staff and family members huddled in the university's basketball arena that "people all over this country are thinking about you, and asking God to provide comfort for all who have been affected."

Speaking one day after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, Bush tried to comfort a university -- and a nation -- shaken by the spasm of violence. He received an extended standing ovation by the crowd that packed the 10,000-seat Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg, Va., where he told a sea of mourners wearing orange-and-maroon shirts that he knew of their famed "Hokie Spirit."

"I ask you to reach out to those who ache for sons and daughters who will never come home," he said. Later, he added: "On this terrible day of mourning, it's hard to imagine that a time will come when life at Virginia Tech will return to normal. But such a day will come."

The crowd waiting to hear Bush and others speak stretched for blocks, prompting officials to set up an overflow venue for thousands at the nearby football field.

The most inspiring yet regrettable images of Bush's presidency have come from scenes of crisis. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he stood atop the rubble of the World Trade Center and addressed rescue workers with a bullhorn. The sense of strength he conveyed helped rally a grieving nation.

The opposite was true in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast. As floodwaters inundated New Orleans, Bush flew over the devastated city in Air Force One, ordering that the plane swoop down so he could get a bird's-eye view of the disaster. The image that stuck was one of a detached president, contributing to a fall in his popularity from which he has not recovered.

"It's important for the country to see the one person they decided on as a leader out front and speaking for them in moments like this," said Joe Lockhart, who served as press secretary for President Bill Clinton.

National tragedies have a history of transforming presidencies. Clinton's administration was struggling in 1995 until he spoke at a memorial service honoring victims of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, then the deadliest act of terrorism in the nation's history.

And presidents are increasingly called upon to be the nation's leading voice of moral authority and to express the nation's grief in times of calamity -- both large and small. In 1999, Clinton and Vice President Al Gore joined 30,000 mourners at a memorial service to honor six Massachusetts firefighters who died in the line of duty. In another era, a nation's grief at such a ceremony may have been conveyed by religious leaders, some White House veterans said.

"In the television age, there are only so many voices you can hear, and the president has the megaphone," said David Gergen, who served as an adviser to four presidents. "At times like this, he takes off his cap as commander in chief and puts on the robes of consoler in chief."

Leon Panetta, Clinton's chief of staff, agreed: "In many ways, he is our national chaplain."

For Bush, Monday's rampage pushed aside for the moment the problems engulfing his presidency and partisan politics.

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