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At Boston service, Obama keeps a hopeful tone

His measured, optimistic remarks reflect his style of response to national crisis. 'Tomorrow, this sun will rise over this country that we love.'

April 18, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons, Washington Bureau
  • President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attend an interfaith service honoring bombing victims at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston.
President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attend an interfaith service… (European Pressphoto Agency )

WASHINGTON — President Obama's message was one so imbued with hope that it actually ended with a promise that the sun will come out tomorrow.

"The sun will rise over Boston," Obama declared Thursday in his first extended remarks about the bombings that killed three people and maimed dozens more at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. "Tomorrow, the sun will rise over this country that we love. This special place. This state of grace."

The warm note was quintessential Obama in a speech that embodied this president's style of response to national crisis.

In the days since the Boston attack, Obama has remained measured, cautious, optimistic, as has been his habit. He has minimized the tough talk and hidden any gut reactions. He's sought to appeal to our better angels, rather than harness our frustration and fear.

He has not, in other words, discovered his inner George W. Bush, who memorably climbed atop a hill of rubble at the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with a bullhorn to promise vengeance.

The contrast between the two leaders is often stark, but perhaps never more so than in their responses to the crisis of terrorism at home.

"They each reacted in ways that reflect their personality and their worldview," said David Axelrod, a longtime advisor to Obama and a student of the Bush presidency who is now the director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago. "They were very genuine moments. They were talking to the country and the country heard them. They each were able to meet the moment in their own way."

For Obama, friends say, that means assuming an almost ministerial role, seeking to comfort and inspire, and to help the country cope with situations that seem senseless.

It's hard to imagine Obama making any off-the-cuff remarks — much less shouting a threat to the unknown perpetrators, as Bush did in what became an iconic moment in his presidency.

"I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!" Bush said to cheering rescue workers two days after the attacks.

Days later, the 43rd president, in a solemn speech at a memorial service, talked openly about threats and rage. "This nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger," Bush said. "This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others; it will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing."

To be sure, the scope and scale of the two events call for different responses. The Sept. 11 attacks were world-changing events that led to a war and scrambled the nation's sense of safety.

More than a decade later, the Boston bombings have become a reminder of that insecurity, compounded by the continued uncertainty about who is responsible.

Republican strategist Matthew Dowd said presidential speeches during a crisis have to try match the public's mood. "They all require the sort of emotional response that both reflects the public and moves the public at the same time," said Dowd, a former Bush campaign advisor.

Bush’s bravado was well received by a nation searching for strength, said Dowd, but he also said he now believes that it led to policy mistakes later.

Obama spent little time talking about retribution at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston on Thursday. His remarks treated his promise to bring the perpetrators to justice as almost a given. His true message was about resolve and perseverance.

"Yes, we will find you. And, yes, you will face justice," Obama said, addressing whoever planted the bombs. "But more than that; our fidelity to our way of life — to our free and open society — will only grow stronger. For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but one of power and love and self-discipline."

All presidents go through a process of finding their key for such speeches. Early in his presidency, President George H.W. Bush admitted being so worried about crying in public that he edited out several heartfelt lines from a speech memorializing 47 sailors who died in an explosion on the battleship Iowa in 1989.

The 41st president said he even called his predecessor for counsel. "I asked him, 'How do you do this?' " the elder Bush told reporters. "You puddle up once in a while," President Reagan told him.

Bush said later he became comfortable shedding tears in public.

His successor did not have same reserve. For the famously weepy President Clinton, his remarks following the 1995 bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City were perhaps notable for his lack of tears. Clinton’s remarks, seen as a key moment in his political comeback after bruising Democratic losses in the midterm election, were focused, simple and laced with biblical references.

"Let us teach our children that the God of comfort is also the God of righteousness: Those who trouble their own house will inherit the wind," Clinton said at a memorial service. "Justice will prevail."

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