Patti Davis is the author, most recently, of the novel “The Earth Breaks in Colors” and the daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
When I was writing my book “The Long Goodbye,” a memoir about losing my father to Alzheimer’s, I spoke with veteran reporter Harry Smith about my father’s legacy. Harry was my neighbor when I lived in New York, and I had become friends with him and his family.
“Your father had a shoulder big enough for us to cry on,” he said. “Think about how he comforted this country in the Challenger disaster.”
“We know of your anguish,” my father said in that speech. “We share it.”
Ronald Reagan has not been the only president to offer comfort and solace to a grieving nation. Bill Clinton did after Columbine. George W. Bush did after 9/11. Barack Obama did after Sandy Hook. Each spoke eloquently, with somber compassion and with reverence for the pain of the victims and the shock of a saddened country. Our grief was reflected in their eyes. We didn’t doubt that their hearts were breaking along with ours.
That was then. Now, after a week of fear, with pipe bombs being sent to a list of people whom President Trump has said horrible things about, and to CNN, which he consistently targets, 11 Jewish citizens were slaughtered in their place of worship on the Sabbath. Trump’s response? He joked that he almost canceled an event because, after having to speak to reporters about the shooting in the rain, he was having “a bad hair day.” Yes, I know, he first read what was scripted for him and called the act “evil.” But he has also called Democrats, others who oppose him and the news media evil. The word doesn’t hold much meaning coming from him.
Where does a grieving nation turn for comfort when the man who occupies the White House offers none? Our hearts are hurting. Places of worship are meant to be sanctuaries, not slaughterhouses. America is not supposed to be awash in fear. A friend told me that he doesn’t want to listen to the news anymore. He wants to be ignorant of what’s going on because the stress and the fear are too much to bear. I answered him that we’re all responsible now for tending to one another’s wounds, and if you stay blind to what those wounds are, you can’t help. Ignorance is not an option these days. This is a time for all of us to lead with the courage and compassion that is missing at the highest levels of our government.
In 1999, after Columbine, Clinton spoke about teaching our children “to resolve their conflicts with words, not weapons.”
After 9/11, Bush said, “America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining.”
In 2012, after Sandy Hook, Obama said, “all across this land of ours, we have wept with you. We’ve pulled our children tight.”
After the Challenger disaster, my father said, “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’ ”
After 11 worshippers were gunned down, massacred because they were Jewish, Trump said there should have been an armed guard inside. He said the death penalty should be toughened. And then, later, he made his joke about having a bad hair day and tweeted about a baseball game.
This president will never offer comfort, compassion or empathy to a grieving nation. It’s not in him. When questioned after a tragedy, he will always be glib and inappropriate. So I have a wild suggestion: Let’s stop asking him. His words are only salt in our wounds.
Let’s instead remember that the people in our daily lives are hurting too. Comfort comes in many forms, some of them small moments of kindness. Mother Teresa said, “We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something.”
Those words, and the words of past presidents, can guide us, inspire us, strengthen us when we’ve been driven to our knees.