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Space Shuttle Columbia

A presidential role: Comforting a nation

Americans look for solace from leaders

By Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington Bureau

President Bush:
President Bush: "We are that part of creation which seeks to understand all creation."

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- When President Bush paid tribute Tuesday to the seven astronauts who perished aboard the space shuttle Columbia, he assumed a role familiar to U.S. leaders: Comforting a nation shaken by tragedy.

In times of grief and challenge, presidents are called upon to articulate a sense of the nation's hopes and dreams, and give voice to its better sense of self. President Reagan played that role to perfection when he spoke the night the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, and President Clinton won acclaim for his efforts to bring solace to the families affected by the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

The role of comforter-in-chief fell to Bush Tuesday in Houston, Texas, where he spoke of the seven men and women who died, calling them the "best among us" and saying they personified the spirit of discovery

"We are that part of creation which seeks to understand all creation," a somber Bush declared.

Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said the task of leading a nation through tragedy, by words or deeds, is important for any president, and the significance of that role has grown.

"It turns out to be more important than we thought," Ornstein said. "We're at a stage now in the modern media where everything is so fragmented that the only things that bring us together in the public square are tragedies or disasters .. We look for someone to reassure us of a common purpose."

Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, said the role of mourner-in-chief has been magnified by the growth of mass communications and jet travel.

"It's more likely that a president will be there -- wherever there is -- and will speak more promptly after a disaster to a very large audience," Hess said.

President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton attended a memorial service of victims of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.
President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton attended a memorial service of victims of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

Hess gives Bush high marks for his ability to connect with people in times of trouble, a talent that he said is especially noteworthy given Bush's often inarticulate way of speaking and his privileged background.

"There's a feeling that he's genuine," Hess said. "And that can be strange for a fellow with his dynastic history. But he's more Midland (Texas) than Greenwich, Connecticut."

Each president has brought his own style to the task.

Reagan, the former actor, knew how to deliver a line with conviction and grace. The night of January 28, 1986 -- after Challenger exploded earlier that day -- Reagan scrapped his plans to deliver his State of the Union address, instead speaking to the nation from the Oval Office.

President Reagan addressed the nation the night the Challenger exploded in 1986.
President Reagan addressed the nation the night the Challenger exploded in 1986.

His closing line remains stirring, years after it was delivered. Quoting a poem written by an airman during World War II, Reagan said of the lost crew, "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.' "

In 1995, it was Clinton's actions, perhaps more than his comforting words, that made an impression on people. During a memorial service for the lives lost in the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton hugged and consoled the grief-stricken families, displaying an empathy that became a hallmark of his presidency.

There are other examples. With patrician bearing, President Franklin D. Roosevelt rallied the nation to war following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, decrying it as a "day that will live in infamy." President Lincoln's words after the Civil War battle of Gettysburg resonate still as he articulated "the proposition that all men are created equal."

Many political analysts believe Bush found his voice as a national leader in the days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Whether his words at that time or this week will stand the test of time is a matter to be decided by historians, One thing appears likely; this won't be the last time Bush is called upon to offer a salve to a wounded nation.


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