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Obama finds fitting words for Arizona tragedy

Mark Mardell | 01:47 UK time, Thursday, 13 January 2011

President Barack Obama in Tucson

Tucson, Arizona

It wasn't the usual sort of memorial service. It wasn't, for a start, very solemn. Music of all sorts, from choral to soul, built up towards the speeches. It followed pretty much the pattern of every other Obama rally I have been to.

The audience whooped and hollered during the speech. But there was no doubt they were local people, and I presume this was a sort of cathartic release after days of horrible tension. The biggest cheer was when the president revealed that Gabby Giffords had opened her eyes.

He brought them good news and he tried to bring them hope. He portrayed those who died as archetypes in a tableau: the mum, grandma, brother and child of an American family, who should inspire every American that they can be better in their private and public life.

His tribute to the nine-year-old who died was heart-rending.

"Christina was given to us on September 11th, 2001, one of 50 babies born that day to be pictured in a book called 'Faces of Hope'. On either side of her photo in that book were simple wishes for a child's life. 'I hope you help those in need,' read one. 'I hope you know all of the words to the National Anthem and sing it with your hand over your heart. I hope you jump in rain puddles.'

"If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today."

But his message was broader than that of a young life cut brutally short.

Here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation's future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model.

She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted."

The US TV networks call this part of the president's job - a sort of "healer-in-chief". But here Mr Obama attempted to go well beyond binding the wounds, to deal with what he sees as a more profound sickness.

It was a subtly political speech, defying the expectation of those who those who thought he would remain aloof from the debate about the sometimes febrile and vitriolic nature of American politics.

When he said that this tragedy must not be an excuse for Americans to turn on one another for more point scoring and pettiness, Mr Obama appeared to rise above party and castigate both Republicans and Democrats.

But it is the right that has been revitalised by the Tea Party movement and its sometimes harsh language.

"At a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do - it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds."

He is trying to brand his opponents' most successful rhetoric a moral failure.

"We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future," the president said. He did not mention gun control or new legislation. But it is hard to see what else he meant.

Nor is the call to unite a bland apolitical cliche.

With the Republicans in control of part of congress he is in a tricky position. Getting them to agree to anything will be enormously difficult and is likely to alarm his own side.

In talking about working together, and rising above the "usual plane of politics" the president is suggesting that necessity is a virtue.

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