In Allie Young and Stephanie Davies, President Barack Obama found a narrative to help soothe a nation.
The two best friends were sitting together in the darkened movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, when the masked killer walked in. Young, 19, stood as the gunman threw gas canisters and she got shot in the neck.
Davies, 21, dragged Young from the aisle and pressed her fingers on the spurting wound even as the firing continued. Once police arrived, she helped carry her to an ambulance.
Twelve people died. Young is among the survivors.
“As tragic as the circumstances of what we’ve seen today are, as heartbreaking as it is for the families, it’s worth us spending most of our time reflecting on young Americans like Allie and Stephanie,” Obama said after meeting the two women and other victims of the July 20 mass shooting, “because they represent what’s best in us, and they assure us that out of this darkness a brighter day is going to come.”
Obama went to Aurora yesterday to fulfill one his job’s most delicate tasks: comforting the nation in a time of tragedy. Americans have come to expect their president, whoever it is, to lead the nation in collective mourning, reflection, prayer and remembrance, said former presidential speech writers and aides.
“In recent decades, comforter-in-chief has become part of the president’s head of state role,” said Clark Judge, a speech writer for President Ronald Reagan. “In moments of shock and grief, the president can remind us when we most need reminding of the basic goodness and love that characterize America and the American people.”
It was the second time that Obama’s been called on to speak as president for a nation reeling from a mass shooting. In January, 2011, a gunman opened fire at a shopping mall in Tucson, killing six. Among the wounded was U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head. Obama called on Americans to remember the victims and honor the ordinary people who acted heroically amid the terror.
Obama yesterday met privately for about two and a half hours with survivors and families of victims at the University of Colorado Hospital at Aurora. When he emerged, Obama said he wanted to tell the story of Young and Davies because “it’s representative of everything that I saw and heard today.”
“Even in the darkest of days, life continues,” Obama said, “and people are strong and people bounce back and people are resilient.”
When the loss of seven astronauts in the 1986 Challenger disaster gripped the nation in horror, Reagan turned to faith as he spoke at a memorial afterward.
“We can find consolation only in faith, for we know in our hearts that you who flew so high and so proud now make your home beyond the stars, safe in God’s promise of eternal life,” Reagan said.
President Bill Clinton also sought to salve the nation’s wounds after the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people.
Four days after the Tucson shooting, Obama asked Americans to choose compassion over conflict. “If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost,” he said.
As with Tucson, the Aurora shooting has brought calls for limiting the interference of politics and prompted members of both parties to close ranks. Obama and the presumptive Republican nominee for president, Mitt Romney, suspended for three days the speeches and election bombast. Both campaigns have pulled their advertisements from Colorado.
Obama was just in Colorado less than a month ago to console families who lost homes to wildfires.
Obama’s challenge now with Aurora “best compares with Lincoln’s mission at Gettysburg: comfort an entire unhappy nation by comforting an afflicted few,” said Harold Holzer, a scholar of President Abraham Lincoln and a vice president of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“In a way, Obama has a tougher job,” he said. “To make sense out of something senseless, to find a national purpose out of something purposeless. To bring closure to insanity.”
Vice President Joe Biden added his voice to the national recovery today before a gathering of police officers in Manalapan, Florida.
Biden, who had planned to deliver a policy speech, instead like Obama recounted events from inside the theater where people saved their friends, loved ones, or even strangers. Those actions represent, Biden said, the “better angels” of human nature cited by Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address.
“These are the people who define who we are as a nation,” Biden said to about 250 members of the National Association of Police Organizations.
Obama said he realized the limits of words as comfort in such situations. “My main task was to serve as a representative of the entire country and let them know that we are thinking about them at this moment and will continue to think about them each and every day,” he said of his visits.
Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates said Obama’s spending time with families during this time of personal hurt and national grieving was critical.
“I can’t tell you how important this visit is,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” yesterday. “These families need that kind of contact by our elected leader.”
“It means a great deal to them and all of Aurora,” he said.