Obama's Tucson memorial speech: How it elevated the political debate.

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Jan. 13 2011 11:02 AM

Beautiful Noise

How Obama used his speech in Tucson to elevate the political debate.

See Slate's complete coverage of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and arrest of Jared Lee Loughner.

President Obama and Mark Kelly. Click image to expand.
President Barack Obama embraces NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, husband of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, during the memorial in Tucson, Ariz.

In Tucson Wednesday night, it sounded like a campaign rally. A memorial service is no place for the cheers and applause. But the noise was perfect. Not because the president's words were powerful, though they were, but because the scene matched this moment of noisy distractions. The solemnity of the event was interrupted in the same way the period after the shooting has been interrupted by the political debate.

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.

The president's job was to move past both—to get a message out and through the noise so the country could hear. If it can be done, he did it.

The president memorialized the dead and celebrated the heroes. He could have stopped there. He could have decided not to tarnish their memory with politics. He made another decision, using just enough politics and the power of his office to build a memorial to their lives by calling the rest of us to live up to their example. That they are deserving of our good example. That was the message. He used that expression when talking about our children but it was his request of the country. "What, beyond prayers and expressions of concern, is required of us going forward? How can we honor the fallen? How can we be true to their memory?"

The president did not ask us to put away passion but to act with restraint. It was not a call to stop fighting but to stop fighting dirty. He didn't just issue orders. By holding up the examples of the lives well lived—and worthy of the applause they received—he hoped to draw us to the lesson. The president was a speaker, but he was also a participant. "They help me believe," he said. Later, referring to Christina Taylor Green, he said: "I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it."

On the 50th anniversary of John Kennedy's inauguration, the president wisely did not refer back to the famous line from his predecessor. It has been quoted too often. (The text he quoted from, twice, was the Bible.) But the message of the speech was similar: Citizenship demands something of us.

In a sense this was a familiar moment: more words from an eloquent president. But it was more than that. Carefully arranged words are an antidote and an example. In a world of quick, loud, and lazy opinions, it's refreshing to have a speech that feels as though it were typeset. There was no shortage of emotion in the speech, but it did not stretch beyond what was required. As any good writer knows, conveying powerful emotions effectively requires restraint. That's a message that also applies to our political debate.

More than eloquence, the president also offered an argument, one he has been making for years. Aides say Obama stayed up all night working on the speech. We know that's his way. But the speech wasn't just the product of an all-nighter. It came from someone who thinks about children and the obligations of being a parent, who knows how it feels to be startled by your desperate love for a spouse whom you might have taken for granted in the rush of the day.

The president may not be emotional. But you can't write that speech if you're all ice water.

What do we want in a president? The office has become so misshapen it's hard to say what it doesn't encompass. Giving speeches isn't the entire job, of course. But if part of the job requirement is someone who reminds us that our public life can reflect our best private selves, then Obama showed that he is up to it. He has been thinking about that idea long before this tragedy called for a speech about it. The test for all of us is to do the same after the applause has died down.

Watch an excerpt from President Obama's speech in Tucson:

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