Obama visits surviving victims in Tucson, plans to speak at memorial service

Colleagues pay tribute to wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords during the president's State of the Union address as the Arizona lawmaker begins the next phase of her recovery at a rehab facility in Houston.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 12, 2011; 7:08 PM

TUCSON - Arriving in this shaken desert city Wednesday to speak at a public memorial service for victims of the shooting rampage that left six dead, President Obama went first to visit hospitalized survivors, including a congresswoman, and their families at University Medical Center.

Obama spent nine minutes with critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, in the intensive care unit.

After spending time with Giffords and other victims, Obama went by motorcade to the University of Arizona's McKale Memorial Center, where thousands of people lined up for first-come first-served seating at a service that organizers said was expected to draw 17,000 - 12,000 in the auditorium, and the overflow in the football stadium. About 100 seats were reserved for VIPs, including family members of victims.

For Obama, who landed in Tucson at about 3:30 p.m. Mountain time, the memorial service will mark his first opportunity to address the shooting at length - but it is unlikely to be his last.

The remarks - written to last just under 20 minutes - will be focused on the victims and the healing process. He may touch on the current political discourse, calling on individuals to think about the larger meaning of the recent tragedy.

"The President will devote a significant portion of his remarks to the memory of the victims. He'll also reflect on how all of us might best honor their memory in our own lives," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

If Obama is going to make a grander statement on civility, White House officials said, that will come in another context, after the funerals have been completed and the immediate shock of the massacre, less than a week old, has begun to subside.

White House officials - like the rest of the country -- are still grappling with the meaning of the rampage and whether it is appropriate to link it to a polarized political culture. But with the State of the Union address less than two weeks away, officials said it is likely that Obama will raise the subject again in some manner in the days ahead, including in his speech to Congress. He may also give a separate speech.

Obama began working on his Tucson remarks Monday night, after nearly a dozen phone calls to family members and law enforcement officials working on the case, and revised his comments in the intervening days. Leading up to the moment, White House aides were unusually quiet about how he would approach it, tacitly acknowledging that they were sensitive to charges Obama might try to use the occasion for political gain.

Official Washington ground to a halt immediately after the massacre last Saturday, and was still largely in a state of suspension on Wednesday. Obama and the first lady left the White House early Wednesday afternoon. Among those traveling with them on Air Force One, according to the White House, were Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary and former Arizona governor Janet Napolitano, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and members of the Arizona House delegation.

The theme of the hour-long service, expected to begin at 6 p.m. Mountain time, is, "Together We Thrive: Tucson and America." I

At an entrance to the stadium, people waited in a packed crowd in the warm afternoon sun. Many had been camped out there since mid morning and said the mood was exciting and generous.

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