Mourner-in-chief.

Photographer: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Pulling a Nation Back Together in Dallas

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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But for one false note, President Barack Obama’s stirring address at Tuesday’s memorial service for the five slain Dallas police officers was perhaps one of the finest of his presidency. His remarks actually constituted four different speeches, uneasily knit together. Two of the four were excellent; one was necessary and important, but showed signs of swift and shaky drafting; and the fourth, although worthy, felt out of place.

Let’s consider each in turn.

Speech 1 – The first and of course obligatory speech was the praise of the professionalism of the police. He noted, borrowing from Dallas Police Chief David Brown, that law enforcement officers do a dangerous job and are rarely thanked for it.  In fact, they’re often reviled. But, said the president, the police are “deserving of our respect and not our scorn.” He criticized those who deprecate law enforcement without recognizing the dangers of their job.

On the night of the shooting, the police “were upholding the constitutional rights of this country,” Obama said, even though there “must have been signs or slogans or chants with which they profoundly disagreed.” Those who call for violence against police, “do a disservice to the very cause of justice that they claim to promote.”

All of this was gracefully delivered. The president’s detailing of the lives of the slain officers surely wrung tears from many in the audience. He reminded us that police do their work -- "a hard and daily labor" -- not to get rich, but to maintain the rule of law in our society.  He then praised the audience directly: “When the bullets started flying, the men and women of the Dallas police, they did not flinch.” He added: “We mourn fewer people today because of your brave actions.”

This is political rhetoric at its finest: avoiding partisanship, praising others and calling forth our nation's best. Nice work by the mourner-in-chief.

Grade:  A.

Speech 2 – The president also faced the tricky task of reassuring the many Americans who worry, in his words, that “the center won't hold and that things might get worse.” He conceded that the fears are real:  “The deepest faultlines of our democracy have suddenly been exposed, perhaps even widened.” His difficulty was finding a way to calm the waters without playing Pollyanna. His solution -- a correct one -- was to embrace the problem: “I believe our sorrow can make us a better country.”

He spoke at length about “the America I know” -- an America of people who roll up their sleeves and work together. He called on listeners to “worry less about which side has been wronged, and worry more about joining sides to do right.” Quoting Ezekiel, he reminded us to pray for a new heart -- a heart of flesh, not of stone. “We are not as divided as we seem,” he told the mourners. And he brought them to their feet with the story of the protester who was shot protecting her children, then saved by the police, and whose 12-year-old son now wants to be a police officer when he grows up. A deftly drafted section of the speech, delivered with just the right mix of solemnity and optimism.

Grade:  A+.

Speech 3 – The third theme involved Obama’s effort to explain the reasons for the genuine pain of the black community. “Race relations have improved dramatically in my lifetime,” he said. “Those who deny it are dishonoring the struggles that helped us achieve that progress.” Yet, as the president pointed out, racial disparities remain, particularly in the criminal justice system.  When we deny this, he said, we deny the experience of black families.

So far, so good. But the next few paragraphs felt like the not-quite-finished product of team drafting. Obama had a good point to make, but somehow it didn’t come out quite right. No institution, he said, is entirely free of bias. Unfortunately, he singled out as his example the police. The overwhelming majority of officers, he conceded, do a good job. But there is prejudice, too, and we should root it out.

I am not a fan of changing one’s message to suit the audience. It was noticeable, though, that members of the police choir who were sitting behind Obama kept their hands in their laps as pockets of applause broke out. Small wonder. They were present to mourn their fellow officers. It’s vital that we have a serious conversation about the problem of racial bias in policing, but the kickoff might perhaps have waited for a day not dedicated to honoring the fallen.

On the other hand -- note to the White House speechwriters! -- if the president thought it important to include in his remarks a criticism of bias, then more balance would have made the message more palatable.  It wasn’t enough for Obama to say that we all harbor prejudices in our hearts and homes. Hearts and homes are abstract; the police force is concrete. Perhaps the president should have said something like this: “No institution is entirely immune. The reporters who will dissect this speech aren’t immune. Neither my own political party nor the opposition is immune. Neither liberals nor conservatives are immune. My own White House staff is not immune. Those who protest are not immune.” 

Had the president preceded his comments on bias in policing with clear criticism of other institutions, I suspect that his reminder of the important proposition that racial prejudice survives today would have gone down a bit more easily. Maybe I’m wrong. But at least he would have done his part in getting people to listen.

Grade:  B.

Speech 4 – The weakest part of the speech came when, in calling on us to face up to truths we already know, the president suggested that we spend too little on schools and mental health. This unfortunate mixing of mourning and policy is a familiar part of politics today. But here, it did not fit the moment, and was even in some ways inconsistent with the rest of the speech.

The implication was that, somehow, a different set of fiscal priorities would have avoided the ambush in Dallas, or the other tragedies of which the president spoke. Yet just moments earlier, the president had warned us that evil truly exists in the world. Is evil a disease that we can cure through government spending? So far, no society has managed to work out a policy that will keep bad people from doing bad things. The reason we should build better schools is that education is important -- not because we will thereby put an end to evil. But even though this part didn’t fit, I can’t really award a bad grade because it's very much in the spirit of today’s politics to lace mourning with policy.

Grade:  B-minus.

     The speech overall was excellent, weakened only by the problems with what I've called Speech 4. In any case, it was at all points presidential -- a model for which the current candidates for the office Obama holds might usefully aspire.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Susan Warren at susanwarren@bloomberg.net