White House

For Obama, Charleston eulogy a moment to comfort a shocked nation

A South Carolina Highway Patrol honor guard member stands over Sen. Clementa Pinckneys body during a public viewing in the Statehouse, Wednesday, June 24, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver the eulogy at Pinckney's funeral Friday morning at the College of Charleston. Pinckney was one of those killed in a mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
A South Carolina Highway Patrol honor guard member stands over Sen. Clementa Pinckneys body during a public viewing in the Statehouse, Wednesday, June 24, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver the eulogy at Pinckney's funeral Friday morning at the College of Charleston. Pinckney was one of those killed in a mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. AP

President Barack Obama has delivered eulogies for elementary school students gunned down in a classroom, for soldiers felled at Fort Hood and for employees slain at Washington’s Navy Yard.

His remarks Friday at a memorial service will hit even closer to home.

Obama will pay tribute in Charleston to the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, pastor of a historic African-American church who, along with eight black parishioners, was shot to death after Bible study in the church basement. That church, Obama has noted, was once burned to the ground because its worshipers worked to end slavery.

“This may be as consequential a speech as he’ll ever give,” said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., who was aboard a somber Air Force One as Obama flew to Arizona in 2011 to deliver remarks after a shopping mall shooting rampage that killed six and wounded 13, including former Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords. “America is going to want to hear from him.”

Obama will have to do more than eulogize Pinckney.

National tragedies such as a racially charged massacre in a church require language that comforts a nation, celebrates those lost and provides a path forward.

“We look at the president as our national priest, in that role he must provide us with a eulogy that helps us work through the trauma,” said David Frank, a rhetoric professor at the University of Oregon who has studied Obama’s remarks after mass shootings. “It’s addressed not only to the victims, but to the living, to help the nation think through what must be done the next day, the next year.”

“He will be speaking to the nation,” Clyburn said. “This is not just about Charleston.”

Obama began working on the remarks early this week, along with lead speechwriter Cody Keenan, who helped him with the Giffords speech.

Aides say Obama likes to write major sections of his speeches himself, adding personal flourishes particular to eulogies.

He tweaked his well-received Arizona speech even after landing in the state, for example, inserting one of the speech’s most dramatic lines backstage just minutes before delivery. He said he had just visited Giffords at the hospital and that she had “opened her eyes, so I can tell you she knows we are here.”

Friday’s address at the College of Charleston’s TD Arena will also be personal for Obama: He and first lady Michelle Obama became friendly with Pinckney, who was also a state senator, during Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Their bond “was strong enough to endure all the way until today,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said.

Michelle Obama will accompany her husband to the service, along with Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill.

Obama’s remarks will focus on remembering the nine who died and “celebrating their lives,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said.

RACE

One likely broader theme will be race.

The murders have plunged the country into a debate over the extent of racism in the United States, a country that has twice elected a black man president. And it’s prompted Obama -- criticized for a seeming reluctance to talk about race -- to speak bluntly as he nears the eulogy.

Obama used the N-word in an interview that aired Monday to argue that the U.S. has yet to be “cured” of racism. Clyburn, who noted with irony that he last saw Pinckney at a prayer vigil for Walter Scott, a black South Carolina man who was shot dead by a white police officer, is hoping for more straight talk in Obama’s address.

“We’ve been celebrating this myth,” said Clyburn. “I think the president would do well to have people take a hard look at some of the realities.”

GUNS

He also may talk about guns as he did immediately after the shootings, when he said the church members were slain “in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.”

“There will be people crying out for something on gun violence,” said Clyburn.

Using the eulogy to talk about guns or his desire to limit access to guns would carry some risk of appearing to use a unifying moment for a political goal that divides the country. It surely would set off critics who charge that he’s too quick to suggest that new gun laws would make a difference.

Obama stopped short of a call for gun control in his Arizona speech. He pledged an aggressive gun control campaign after the December 2012 elementary school shooting in Connecticut. That effort failed, but White House aides say expanding restrictions on gun purchases remains a priority for Obama.

“He’s in a second term, he doesn’t have to run for office again and he’s speaking more forth-rightfully,” said Frank, the University of Oregon professor. “He’s in a moment where he can be more true to what he believes.”

Presidents playing the role of comforter

I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us, we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.
Barack Obama, Tucson Shooting Memorial Service, talking about 9-year-old victim Christina-Taylor Green, January 12, 2011
Today, we feel what Franklin Roosevelt called, "the warm courage of national unity." This is a unity of every faith and every background. This has joined together political parties and both houses of Congress. It is evident in services of prayer and candlelight vigils and American flags, which are displayed in pride and waved in defiance. Our unity is a kinship of grief and a steadfast resolve to prevail against our enemies.
George W. Bush, National Cathedral, September 14, 2001
Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear. When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life.
Bill Clinton, Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial Service, April 23, 1995
I know it's hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.
Ronald Reagan, Addressing the nation after the Challenger Disaster, January 28, 1986
The dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has not died with him. Men who are white -- men who are black -- must and will now join together as never in the past to let all the forces of divisiveness know that America shall not be ruled by the bullet, but only by the ballot of free and of just men.
Lyndon B. Johnson, Addressing the nation after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., April 5, 1968
We can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, Nov. 19 1863
I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us, we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.
Barack Obama, Tucson Shooting Memorial Service, talking about 9-year-old victim Christina-Taylor Green, January 12, 2011
I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us, we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.
Barack Obama, Tucson Shooting Memorial Service, talking about 9-year-old victim Christina-Taylor Green, January 12, 2011
Today, we feel what Franklin Roosevelt called, "the warm courage of national unity." This is a unity of every faith and every background. This has joined together political parties and both houses of Congress. It is evident in services of prayer and candlelight vigils and American flags, which are displayed in pride and waved in defiance. Our unity is a kinship of grief and a steadfast resolve to prevail against our enemies.
George W. Bush, National Cathedral, September 14, 2001
Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear. When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life.
Bill Clinton, Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial Service, April 23, 1995
I know it's hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.
Ronald Reagan, Addressing the nation after the Challenger Disaster, January 28, 1986
The dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has not died with him. Men who are white -- men who are black -- must and will now join together as never in the past to let all the forces of divisiveness know that America shall not be ruled by the bullet, but only by the ballot of free and of just men.
Lyndon B. Johnson, Addressing the nation after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., April 5, 1968
We can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, Nov. 19 1863
Today, we feel what Franklin Roosevelt called, "the warm courage of national unity." This is a unity of every faith and every background. This has joined together political parties and both houses of Congress. It is evident in services of prayer and candlelight vigils and American flags, which are displayed in pride and waved in defiance. Our unity is a kinship of grief and a steadfast resolve to prevail against our enemies.
George W. Bush, National Cathedral, September 14, 2001
I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us, we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.
Barack Obama, Tucson Shooting Memorial Service, talking about 9-year-old victim Christina-Taylor Green, January 12, 2011
Today, we feel what Franklin Roosevelt called, "the warm courage of national unity." This is a unity of every faith and every background. This has joined together political parties and both houses of Congress. It is evident in services of prayer and candlelight vigils and American flags, which are displayed in pride and waved in defiance. Our unity is a kinship of grief and a steadfast resolve to prevail against our enemies.
George W. Bush, National Cathedral, September 14, 2001
Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear. When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life.
Bill Clinton, Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial Service, April 23, 1995
I know it's hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.
Ronald Reagan, Addressing the nation after the Challenger Disaster, January 28, 1986
The dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has not died with him. Men who are white -- men who are black -- must and will now join together as never in the past to let all the forces of divisiveness know that America shall not be ruled by the bullet, but only by the ballot of free and of just men.
Lyndon B. Johnson, Addressing the nation after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., April 5, 1968
We can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, Nov. 19 1863
Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear. When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life.
Bill Clinton, Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial Service, April 23, 1995
I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us, we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.
Barack Obama, Tucson Shooting Memorial Service, talking about 9-year-old victim Christina-Taylor Green, January 12, 2011
Today, we feel what Franklin Roosevelt called, "the warm courage of national unity." This is a unity of every faith and every background. This has joined together political parties and both houses of Congress. It is evident in services of prayer and candlelight vigils and American flags, which are displayed in pride and waved in defiance. Our unity is a kinship of grief and a steadfast resolve to prevail against our enemies.
George W. Bush, National Cathedral, September 14, 2001
Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear. When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life.
Bill Clinton, Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial Service, April 23, 1995
I know it's hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.
Ronald Reagan, Addressing the nation after the Challenger Disaster, January 28, 1986
The dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has not died with him. Men who are white -- men who are black -- must and will now join together as never in the past to let all the forces of divisiveness know that America shall not be ruled by the bullet, but only by the ballot of free and of just men.
Lyndon B. Johnson, Addressing the nation after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., April 5, 1968
We can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, Nov. 19 1863
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