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In his response to Tucson shootings, Arizona's John McCain avoids the spotlight

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2011; 1:15 PM

TUCSON - In the days following the shootings here, politicians from around the country appeared on television to speak out about the tragedy. Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik described Arizona as a "mecca" for hatred and bigotry. President Obama, speaking at a memorial service in Tucson, called on the country to begin a new era of civility in honor of the fallen.

But one public figure has been uncharacteristically silent about one of the worst episodes of violence ever to befall his home state. Sen. John McCain (R) was on a congressional trip to Latin America at the time of the shooting and did not return to Arizona until Wednesday. He has granted no interviews and has not spoken about what happened in Tucson.

McCain's spokeswoman, Brooke Buchanan, who traveled to Latin America with McCain, said the senator has been focused intensely on the shootings since Saturday, talking to and meeting with victims, their families, doctors, nurses and the first responders who showed up on the scene. She said McCain, who declined to be interviewed, plans to speak up about the Tucson shootings and about the state of political discourse in the country. But now, she said, is not the moment for such rhetoric.

"This is a time for grieving," Buchanan said. "Senator McCain obviously is a leader and a statesman and will be joining this conversation very soon."

McCain, the Republican presidential nominee who lost to Obama in the 2008 election, was meeting with the president of Colombia over lunch Saturday when he learned of the violence, which killed six and injured 13 others, including Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. He ended the lunch when an erroneous report reached him that Giffords had died. He issued a strongly worded statement condemning the shootings.

"I am horrified by the violent attack on Representative Gabrielle Giffords and many other innocent people by a wicked person who has no sense of justice or compassion," the statement said. ". . . Whoever did this; whatever their reason, they are a disgrace to Arizona, this country and the human race, and they deserve and will receive the contempt of all decent people and the strongest punishment of the law."

Later in the day, McCain learned that a close friend, U.S. District Judge John M. Roll, whom McCain had nominated to the federal bench in 1991, had been killed. He put out a second statement about Roll, and he began what would prove to be several days of phone-calling to the injured, the dead's families and medical personnel, Buchanan said.

McCain's staff said the senator decided carry on with his trip, however, until public memorial services were planned. He was in the midst of a week-long, five-country congressional delegation trip with Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) that had involved hundreds of military, diplomatic and other government officials from the United States as well as the countries in Latin America they were visiting.

"It's a huge process. It takes weeks to plan," said former Republican representative Jim Kolbe, who is Giffords's predecessor in Arizona's 8th Congressional District. "It's pretty unusual to abruptly cancel something en route in order to return. It wasn't a member of his immediate family. There's not anything he can do by being here. I think carrying through with his official duties was perfectly appropriate."

McCain returned home on Wednesday, four days after the shootings, in time for "Together We Thrive," a memorial service hosted by the University of Arizona and attended by the state's congressional delegation, Gov. Jan Brewer, Sen. John Kyl, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and, of course, Obama.

McCain did not speak at the service, Buchanan said, because he was not invited to do so.

"Senator McCain is here to show support whether he's sitting in the crowd or he's behind the lectern," she said.

Thursday morning, he and his wife, Cindy, visited with Giffords's husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, at the University Medical Center, where Giffords is recuperating. They attended the funeral of Christina Taylor Green, the 9-year-old killed in front of the Safeway, and a vigil Thursday night for Roll. On Friday, they were scheduled to attend Roll's funeral.

"No, he has not been in front of a camera or hosting media gaggles," she said. "He has been doing what he should be doing, which is meeting privately with the victims and the victims' families, attending memorials, visiting folks at the hospital like he did this morning, meeting with the first responders, the doctors, nurses, the EMTs who were at the scene - the folks who've been directly affected by this awful tragedy."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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