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Sunday 16 January 2011

Obama rises to the challenge of Tucson

Palin's reaction was disastrous, but Obama may just have secured a second term, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

AS Barack Obama and Sarah Palin found last week, words matter. Before the Arizona massacre, Obama was perceived as cerebral, cold and disconnected from the American public; while Palin's trenchant, spirited articulation of the worries of ordinary people guaranteed her adoring crowds wherever she went -- along with the bitter enmity of the liberal left. Jared Lee Loughner's murderous rampage put pressure on both of them to show inspirational leadership. Only one rose to the occasion.

Obama's critics doubted that he would find the necessary emotional resources to articulate the country's pain, while Palin's accused her of being a hate-monger who -- along with Fox News shock jocks -- had encouraged political violence by her militaristic imagery and toxic rhetoric. There were angry denunciations of her use of words like 'crosshairs' and 'targets' in identifying electoral opportunities, although Democratic strategists use precisely the same language.

The American right has no monopoly on violent metaphors. Obama once memorably remarked on the campaign trail: "If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun." The quote is from The Untouchables, which chronicled the success of a Chicago hero, Elliott Ness, in putting Al Capone out of business.

Obama may not -- like Palin -- shoot moose, but he became president because he was a ruthless operator in the sewer that is Chicago politics. There is plenty of venom out there about Obama and the Democrats, but it's no worse than the vicious insults levelled at George Bush and his associates, or, indeed, at Palin and the Tea Party.

There's no evidence to suggest Jared Lee Loughner was nothing other than a psycho inspired by Hitler and Marx rather than Sarah Palin and Ross Limbaugh, but that didn't stop the link being made.

"Violent acts are what happen when you create a climate of hate," wrote one hysterical New York Times commentator, predicting that if "eliminationist rhetoric" was not wiped out, the Arizona atrocity would be just the beginning. Look, Paul Krugman, America is big, it has its share of nutters and because it's a free society its politicians are at risk. Four presidents have been assassinated -- Abraham Lincoln in 1865, James Garfield in 1881, William McKinley in 1901 and John F Kennedy in 1963 -- and Theodore Roosevelt was injured in 1912 and Ronald Reagan in 1981.

There have been unsuccessful attempts to kill several others, including Bill Clinton and both George Bushes.

Wounded by accusations that she was somehow to blame for Loughner running amok, Palin recorded a disastrous videotaped message. Even though I wouldn't want her to be president, I like many things about Sarah Palin, but this was a terrible performance that made her seem petty and self-obsessed. It was compounded by her statement that she had been the victim of a "blood libel". Blood libels are typically lies told about Jews using the blood of non-Jewish children in baking their Passover matzos. They have been used to justify the persecution of Jews down the ages, and indeed, are still regurgitated on Arab television to keep the pot of anti-Semitism bubbling.

To have used the term to describe the accusations of liberal commentators like Paul Krugman displayed appalling judgement.

And then Obama made a speech so brilliant and moving as to win plaudits right across the political spectrum. It seems to have been inspired by Ronald Reagan's remarks in January 1986 just after the US was traumatised by the sight of the Challenger space-shuttle blowing up just after lift-off. In honouring the dead so eloquently, he made them inspirational. "We will never forget them," he promised, "nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God'."

Perhaps because his second daughter is the same age, the death of nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green seems to have been the key to unlocking Obama's emotions. After eulogising the victims and the heroes of that terrible day in Tucson, Arizona, he found the language of a statesman.

"The loss of these wonderful people," he said, "should make every one of us strive to be better. To be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbours and co-workers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy -- it did not -- but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud."

Jared Lee Loughner may unwittingly have guaranteed Barack Hussein Obama another term as president. Politics is certainly a funny business.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards