Think back to January 2011 and the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at a ‘meet the people’ event outside a supermarket in Tuscan. The attack, in which six people died and Giffords was seriously injured, shocked America.
Some saw it as the inevitable outcome of a politics become intolerant and ‘uncivil.’ The Republican politician Sarah Palin, then widely seen as contemplating a Presidential bid herself, was vilified for having shown Giffords caught in the crosshairs of a rifle sight as a campaign ‘target.’ She attempted to address the damage with a speech mourning the dead, but vigorously defending free speech and forthright debate as key American virtues. It fell to Obama in his public role to address the memorial service for the dead. With the eyes of the world and of a shattered local community watching, how would he respond?
It was a test of competence at a high level, way beyond politics. Visibly emotional, yet steadfast, he addressed the service as a cultural leader. He ministered to a cultural wound. He remembered the dead – personally, individually, as if they had each been his neighbor. He praised those who had acted swiftly and selflessly to limit the slaughter – moving the audience to whooping like a campaign rally. And he used the occasion, this opening in the culture, to call on everyone to reflect on how we live our own lives: to “expand our moral imaginations,” “sharpen our instincts for empathy” and remember that “what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame – but rather, how well we have loved.”
It is a simple message. Not original by any means. Palin had played with some of the same sentiment. But her intent was clearly political. Obama was operating at another level, and calling on our better selves to join him there. It was evocative – a conscious rising to the occasion, calling forth resources in his audience by authentically demonstrating them himself.
– Dancing at the Edge: Competence, Culture and Organization in the 21st Century