Much is being written in the blogosphere about the difference between Sarah Palin’s reaction to the Arizona shootings and the approach taken by President Obama. For Palin, it was an opportunity to define herself as able to handle a personal political crisis, and to display an understanding of nuance and tonality. The qualities we seek in our leaders, after all, are undefinable. It is not just about promising legislative victories or thrilling one’s base; it’s not about underscoring and exaggerating fears or justifying one’s status as victim. True leaders aren’t afraid to claim responsibility for their weaknesses, a touch of humanity that speaks to the vulnerabilities in all of us and creates a visceral connection with those who seek a leader’s sagacity. Sadly, for Governor Palin, she took what could have been a teachable moment and used it to continue her practice of being defensive, divisive, and accusatory. And whoever injected the phrase “blood libel” in her missed opportunity was either ignorant of its true meaning or was playing the basest form of politics.
As Jonathan Martin at Politico put it, it’s unclear whether Palin has interest in moving beyond grievance-based politics, or if she even has the capacity to do so. She surely has the funds to hire the best political advisors who might guide her through choppy waters. However, there does come a time when the best coach can’t help a poor swimmer.
Conversely, President Obama used the moment to summon us to our higher angels. Disagree all you want about his politics, his religion, or even his birthplace. It is no accident that Barack Obama achieved the highest perch in American politics partly because of his ability to inspire. Bill Clinton felt our pain. Barack Obama speaks to it.
Most Americans don’t believe the tragedy in Arizona was a result of political rhetoric. That doesn’t mean this crucial time can’t be one where we reassess our political rhetoric. The next act of domestic terror could well be one where there is a stronger link to incendiary language. Thus, when Obama says, “Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together,” he works to heal a nation. When he invokes Christina Taylor Green, a nine-year old victim of the shootings, by saying, “I want America to be as good as Christina imaged it,” how can we not feel a tug at our hearts?
A bully pulpit can be used to inspire, heal, transform, and elevate. We embrace those who can exhibit these qualities. But it can also divide, tear down, inflame, and depress. Those blessed enough to have such visibility and exhibit these latter qualities may be embraced as well, for a short time at least, but it is only a matter of time until the opportunity is squandered away.