Reprising grim role, Obama to grieve at Fort Hood

JOSH LEDERMAN, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Returning once again to a grief-stricken corner of America, President Barack Obama is reprising his role as chief comforter, mourning with families of those killed last week at Fort Hood and offering solace to the nation.

It’s a duty that Obama has had to fulfill far too often.

Tucson. Aurora. Oak Creek. Newtown. Boston. Washington Navy Yard. Fort Hood — twice.

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The names of these communities have all become synonymous with tragedy in the years since Obama took office, each challenging the president to find ways to impart meaning to senseless death.

“Increasingly, giving these eulogies has become a central responsibility for our presidents,” said Michael Waldman, who helped write many eulogies as President Bill Clinton’s chief speechwriter. “A president is not just a political leader. He is the head of state and speaks for the whole country.”

But as Obama returns to Fort Hood on Wednesday, he brings little in the way of solutions to offer a society that has been confounded by the frequency of events that have jolted Americans out of their sense of security. For a president who is on the path to ending two wars, warding off violence at home has proved an elusive challenge.

Those close to Obama say he sees his role after a tragedy as fulfilling a ministerial function for the nation. Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s senior adviser and longtime friend, said although it’s painful for Obama, he understands the importance for the president to show leadership, empathy and strength in times of crisis, and for him to spend time with each family member affected.

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“It’s hard because it’s deeply personal for him,” Jarrett said in an interview. “He identifies as a father, as a husband, as a son, as a family member.”

The last time Obama came to Fort Hood, in the wake of another mass shooting in 2009, he told residents of the central Texas community that the 13 lives they lost would endure, their legacies safeguarded by the nation whose protection they had made their life’s work.

“Every evening that the sun sets on a tranquil town, every dawn that a flag is unfurled, every moment that an American enjoys life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — that is their legacy,” Obama said, adopting the role of comforter-in-chief for the first time.

Like an improbable bolt of lightning, tragedy has struck twice at Fort Hood. Army investigators are still piecing together what led to Spc. Ivan Lopez’s deadly, eight-minute rampage last week, on the same sprawling post where an Army psychiatrist unloaded on his comrades five years earlier.

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To be sure, Obama is not the first president called on to help Americans in their grief. Ronald Reagan had the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, Bill Clinton had Oklahoma City and George W. Bush had 9/11, to say nothing of the wars that American troops have fought overseas.

But for much of the country’s history, the role fell largely to the vice president, said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. Modern transportation, around-the-clock media and the public’s demand for answers has put a spotlight on the president’s personal response to catastrophes.

“It is an evolving role of any president in a hyper-YouTube age to make sure you get your boot heels on the ground and you go to those memorials,” Brinkley said, calling the president “the de facto spokesperson for our grief.”

In the days after a 20-year-old gunned down elementary school students in Newtown, Conn., Obama said he had been reflecting on whether America was doing enough to prevent such violence. He concluded that it was not.

“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change,” Obama said as he consoled heartbroken parents at a prayer vigil.

There are few signs today that a new push to address such societal ills through public policy is in the works.

Obama’s efforts to seek stronger gun control protections fell flat in Congress. What some hoped could be a productive national conversation about mental health raised fears that patients could be stigmatized by the actions of criminals.

In the face of such long odds, the president may be reluctant to generate undue hope that the nation will enact new laws or programs. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama’s speech Wednesday will focus on the victims and their families, not on policy.

After Newtown, the National Rifle Association pushed back against new gun control legislation, insisting that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” For proponents of more gun control, those words ring hollow following an insider attack on a base housing America’s good guys with guns.

But for gun control foes — and there are plenty in Texas — equally hollow is the notion that the government can prevent such tragedies. Even after Fort Hood’s second deadly shooting, military officials have warned that screening all soldiers for weapons as they enter the 108,000-acre base isn’t feasible.

Adding complexity to the president’s response are questions about whether the suspect’s wartime service precipitated his actions. Although Lopez did a short stint in Iraq in 2011 and said he suffered a traumatic brain injury, Fort Hood officials have said his mental condition was not a “direct participating factor” in the shooting.

Such is the fraught political terrain that Obama’s speechwriters must traverse as the president prepares, once again, to console a nation in grief. Craig Smith, a speechwriter in the Ford and first Bush administrations, said Obama, not his writers, makes the call about how far to go and whether to use the speech as a call to action.

“What you want to do is praise the people who lost their lives and use them to display certain virtues and values that the public needs to believe in at this moment,” Smith said.