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Two different speeches, two different Obamas

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Monday, January 17, 2011; 8:00 PM

This is a tale of two speeches. The first was the glorious oration Barack Obama delivered last Wednesday at a memorial service for the victims of the Tucson shootings. Obama did not merely rise to the occasion, he vaulted over high expectations, offering words that were balm to the ear - thoughtful, wise, moving. He was a president as father to his nation, comforting his people in their dizzying grief.

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Two days later, the president spoke at yet another memorial service, this one for Richard C. Holbrooke, the celebrated diplomat who had died, unexpectedly and shockingly, just last month. This speech was flat, neither eloquent nor moving, nor the least bit personal. It was phoned in by a man who sat patiently on the stage as others praised a beloved figure, a leviathan of ideas and policies and vexing idiosyncrasies whom the president didn't much care about. It was a dutifully flat performance.

I use the word "performance" intentionally. It is part of what a politician does, what he must do and what the best of them do brilliantly. At Tucson, it was necessary for the president to start a healing process. It was incumbent upon him to comfort the bereaved and to salute the brave and honor the dead - and all this Obama did brilliantly. It was smart of him not to point fingers, not to assess blame, to exonerate the right-wing radio ranters and hold them harmless for what had happened, as indeed it seemed they were. Again, he did this well, too.

The events of Tucson resonated for Obama. The apparent target of the alleged shooter was Gabrielle Giffords, a member of Congress, a politician. Obama had been a member of Congress; he is still a politician. He knows that sweat-popping moment when someone in the crowd comes at you, a wild look in the eyes, a face patchily shaved, an overcoat on a hot day and talks of receiving radio signals in a rotten tooth. Anyone who has ever worked a crowd knows it can be work indeed.

Obama is also a father. His youngest, Sasha, will be 10 in June. A 9-year-old was killed in Tucson. Her name was Christina Taylor Green, and Obama brilliantly envisioned her: "And in Christina - in Christina we see all our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic, so full of magic, so deserving of our love. And so deserving of our good example." This was the president, like us all, smitten by a child of our sweet imaginations. There is sadness and then there is the death of a child. It's a perpetual void that appropriately lacks a word.

But when it came to the Holbrooke speech, imagination failed the president. He and Holbrooke did not really get along. This is documented in Bob Woodward's recent book, "Obama's Wars," and in other accounts. And so, somewhat to his credit, the president did not pretend he had lost a close friend. Nonetheless, this was a man with whom he worked and yet, with one glancing exception, he could not summon up a single personal anecdote - nothing to trigger a smile. The president did his job and remained on stage while others - Bill and Hillary Clinton, in particular - showed how these things are done. They praised Holbrooke as a big, sometimes difficult man whose talents were worth any bother.

Obama's lack of artifice can be admirable, but it is almost never politic. For a while he even wouldn't wear that kitschy American flag lapel pin, 95 cents worth of patriotism. But blarney is as essential to politics as the evanescent lie is to seduction. I am referring now to convincing strangers that you understand their concerns, feel their pain, so that in the end you actually do. A good politician never speaks to a crowd. It is always a collection of friends. Obama speaks mostly to crowds. His hallmark has been his disconnect, a perplexing standoffishness that has hurt him politically.

At the end of the week, the general consensus was that Obama had proved his mettle in Tucson and, along with his recent legislative victories, righted his presidency. But the president who bounded onto the Kennedy Center stage two days later shrunk in stature as the program wore on, and he left the hall, in my eyes at least, looking a lot like the man he was before Tucson. The next two years will be no different than the last two. The president himself said so.

cohenr@washpost.com


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