If at first you don’t succeed in turning a universally praised speech — delivered by a president to a grieving nation, post-tragedy — into a craven political moment, try, try again. That appears to be the lesson the Karl Rove-affiliated super PAC American Crossroads took away in the aftermath of the Tucson shooting that gravely wounded former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
The group says the speech shows “a cynical politician who will do anything to get re-elected.” It’s not the first time conservatives have tried to twist words spoken by Obama as he tried to salve the wounds in Tucson.
A web video produced by American Crossroads and released Monday attacks President Obama for promising a new tone in politics, then running a negative campaign against Mitt Romney. It’s a common lament of Obama critics trying to drive a wedge between the president and the independents he won over four years ago by casting him as a disappointment who has failed to deliver on his promise of “hope and change.”
To make its case, American Crossroads used an out-of-context clip of Obama’s speech at the memorial service for victims of the Tucson shooting. Here’s the clip:
That opening bit — where Obama stands in front of the American flag, and the Arizona state flag — is from the Tucson service, meant to bring the city and the country together after a tragedy that cost several people their lives and led to a national self-examination over the nature of political discourse.
Here’s how the Crossroads video quoted Obama:
“At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized … make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
The clip is spliced with footage of Obama supporters at a campaign rally, suggesting Obama was giving a campaign speech when he said the line. Here’s the complete context and uncut quote, from the White House transcript of Obama’s remarks in Tucson:
You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations — to try and pose some order on the chaos and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we’ve seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health system. And much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.
But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized — 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 happen to think differently than we do — it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.
This isn’t the first time the president’s opponents have tried to characterize Obama’s speech in Tucson after the shootings as cravenly political.
A contingent of conservatives briefly attacked the memorial event on the campus of the University of Arizona as a political affair. But the catalyst for their anger — T-shirts handed out at the event that they believed were Democratic Party paraphernalia — were actually distributed by the university as part of an attempt to unite Tucson.
Obama’s speech was widely praised by both sides for its tone and its lofty goal of politics that steers clear of the personal.
Glenn Beck called the address Obama’s “best speech he has ever given” and some of the conservative commentators shown in the Crossroads ad criticizing Obama — among them Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan and New York Times columnist David Brooks — sung the speech’s praises as well.
“He said what needed to be said,” Noonan said at the time. “I think it was large-spirited.” Noonan praised Obama specifically for avoiding the partisan “muck” she said some focused on in the days following the shooting.
“It spoke from a good height about how this whole debate about civil discourse didn’t get us to that shooting, but re-looking at our civil discourse and making it better can get us out of the muck of the shooting,” she said.
The speech came right as the GOP returned to power in the House, a shift that ushered in the political gridlock in Washington that’s left both parties with little to do besides lob rhetorical arrows at each other. American Crossroads says its time to look at the Tucson speech as a piece of political theater and another promise broken.
“Did Obama’s speech on using ‘language that heals’ not apply to his vampire TV spot?” said Jonathan Collegio, spokesperson for American Crossroads. “The video shows very plainly that President Obama’s holier-than-thou rhetoric from 2007 through today has been totally fraudulent. The good news is that the American people finally have a clear view of what this president really is — a cynical politician who will do anything to get re-elected.”