The horrid shootings and killings in Tucson demonstrate the always-unpredictable nature of mayhem. It’s worsened by the sadly predictable efforts of Washington interests to twist every tragedy into an excuse to restrict our freedoms or to bash their political adversaries. As a former Member of Congress whose life was threatened, I know the issues first-hand. A man went to prison for threatening to kill and dismember me. Local police beefed-up their patrols around my home during that time. And from representing Oklahoma City, I’m aghast that spin doctors are already encouraging President Obama to use this tragedy as his “Oklahoma City moment.”
The attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and others is not a failure of civil discourse. What it demonstrates instead is the risk of being accessible to the public—but that is a necessary aspect of serving in Congress in a free society. Greater attention to security is proper, but it should not restrict citizens from frequent face time with Members of Congress, nor suppress robust debates.
Those who believe in “never letting a crisis go to waste” are unjustified and shameless in trying to point fingers at groups like the Tea Party movement. But if the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, some see it as a reason to bash the Tea Party and to restrict both our First and Second Amendment rights. The gun control lobby is already making its typical arguments, ignoring that Rep. Giffords describes herself on her campaign website as “a longtime gun owner and strong supporter of the Second Amendment.”
Then there are articles publicly advising Obama of how to speak at funerals in Arizona, and headlines such as “Barack Obama’s Oklahoma City Moment.” Victims are still in the hospital and mortuaries, yet political spin doctors are suggesting how Obama can ride the Arizona shooting back into political popularity.
As was the case with Clinton, Obama may be able to remind voters of what they like best about him: his sensible demeanor. Amid the din and ferocity of our political culture, he respectfully keeps his voice down, his emotions in check and his mind open.
That is the pitch, at least. The trick is to make it without seeming to be trying to make it. He will, after all, be speaking at a funeral.
It’s true -as I experienced first-hand – that President Bill Clinton benefited from his sincere displays of compassion regarding the Oklahoma City bombing. I was with him at the memorial service we held; I don’t question the authenticity of his words and conduct there. The timing indeed coincided with the start of his political rebound that led to what had seemed to be an unlikely second term. But the real reason was changes in Clinton’s agenda (including an eventual signing of welfare reform), not because of his commendable compassion.
It’s tawdry to suggest that President Obama should now seek political gain from public displays of empathy. Unfortunately, it’s also typical Washington, just one more thing Americans don’t like about today’s politics.
Former Congressman Ernest Istook is now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.