A Pep Rally For the Dead and Injured

The McKale Memorial Center

I didn’t see much of the “ceremony” last night in Tuscon because when I did tune in, I thought I had mistakenly surfed into a political pep rally. The tone (raucous) and the setting (a sports arena) were, to me, immediately off-putting.

Most seem to have praised Obama’s speech (Tom Maguire of JustOneMinute dissents), but John Podhoretz, writing in the New York Post, reacted as I did:

…the president’s stunning speech was marred by the feeling of the evening that surrounded it and the appalling behavior of the crowd in Tucson listening to it.

It was as though no one in the arena but the immediate mourners and sufferers had the least notion of displaying respectful solemnity in the face of breathtaking loss and terrifying evil.

First there was the professor with Mexican roots who spent 10 minutes talking about himself and then rushed through the Native American blessing he was supposed to be delivering.

There was the twinkly student-body president praising the heroic savior of Gabby Giffords for having fetched her (the student-body president) many cups of coffee during late-night working sessions.

Worst of all, there was the crowd, which bubbled over with excitement and enthusiasm. The tone of the event came to resemble a pep rally, no matter the monstrous fact of the six dead and the many injured.

Even Obama’s lovely peroration about little Christina Green — “I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it” — was greeted by the listeners as though they were delegates at a political convention, rather than attendees at a memorial service.

They might have been mindful that they too had a role, a role as front-line mourners just as it was President Obama’s role to play mourner-in-chief. Instead, they were a “Daily Show” audience writ large.

There’s been a great deal of talk in the wake of the massacre about the need for a national conversation about civility. Maybe what we need is a national conversation about elementary manners…

Last night’s event reminded me a bit of the memorial “service” held for Senator Paul Wellstone of Wisconsin who died a number of years ago in a plane crash during his re-election campaign. That was also held in a large arena with a big crowd of supporters but, unlike last night which merely looked and sounded like a political event, the Wellstone “service” really did degenerate into a full-blown political rally.

Obama’s speech may have been just fine, but we know that television is a visual medium. Viewers are drawn to the spectacle rather than the words, and the spectacle, in this case, screamed political rally, not solemn commemoration.

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