President Obama's small masterpiece of a speech at Fort Hood.

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Nov. 10 2009 6:11 PM

What He Said

President Obama's small masterpiece of a speech at Fort Hood.

Barack Obama at Fort Hood. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama at Fort Hood

President Obama's speech at Fort Hood, Texas, was a small masterpiece—less than 15 minutes—in part because it was so modest. The president had great material and he knew not to get in its way.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Less than three minutes into the speech, the president was telling the story of each of the 13 people who had died. The news has been full of every last detail about the shooter. Obama corrected that balance. If the shooter committed the ultimate act of selfishness, then the president took it as his task to bear witness to the selflessness and hard work of the shooter's victims.

The stories of the dead and those who tried to save them take up almost half of the text. Storytelling is Obama's best talent. It's what worked for him so well in the campaign. Telling stories is effective because it follows the simple rule of good writing: Show, don't tell. You can talk about dedication and selflessness; or you can tell the story of Amber Bahr, who "was so intent on helping others that she did not realize for some time that she, herself, had been shot in the back," or the story of Francisco de la Serna, who treated the police officer who ran toward the gunfire as well as the gunman who was trying to kill her.

The president only briefly referred to the killer's faith. He did not take the opportunity to deliver a politically correct lesson about grouping people or about religion. He did not, as David Brooks wrote today, "rush to therapy." Instead the president delivered the opposite of that: judgment. "This much we do know—no faith justifies these murderous and craven acts; no just and loving God looks upon them with favor. For what he has done, we know that the killer will be met with justice—in this world, and the next."

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Obama knew this wasn't the moment to defend Islam. He also knew to keep out of the speech any lessons about reacting in anger—the kind of lessons Bill Clinton sought to convey in his speech after the bombing of Oklahoma City. He left these things out because they were beside the point. The speech was relentlessly focused on celebrating the fallen and what they represent—not just in their reaction to the shooting but on the sacrifices they had willingly endured. "In an age of selfishness, they embody responsibility. In an era of division, they call upon us to come together. In a time of cynicism, they remind us of who we are as Americans."

In a sense, the president was addressing his remarks to more than just the assembled crowd. His speech was a song to an entire generation: his generation. The first president of the post-Baby Boomer generation was making the claim for the men and women he commands, a host of whom he will send into Afghanistan in the coming weeks. "We need not look to the past for greatness, because it is before our very eyes."

It was a song of America's values, sung by a man who has been questioned, since the Democratic primaries, for being, as Hillary Clinton's strategist Mark Penn put it, "not fundamentally American." During the campaign, he had to make television ads insisting he shared American values. As president, he has contended with opponents who compare him with Hitler because of his … health care plan. Today's speech is unlikely to mollify his most ardent foes, and it won't make health care reform any easier. But it should make it harder for anyone to question his patriotism.

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AP Video: Obama Salutes Ft. Hood Fallen

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