Believing that President Obama’s speech in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings was quite possibly his best moment to date, I decided to ask an historian-in-the-making how other past presidents might have handled the very same situation. The following guest blog is authored by Chris ‘Repman, Jr.’ Cody, who is pursuing his master’s degree in history at Northeastern University.
The recent shootings in Arizona, and subsequent heated political discourse, have led me to reflect on how past presidents might have handled the same crisis. Having taken a deep dive into each and every one of our 43 presidents, here’s how I think a few might have reacted (Rep, Sr. Note: Grover Cleveland held two, non-consecutive terms so, technically, Obama is 43 and ‘43’ was 42. That, in turn, would make ‘41’ 40, but something tells me this might be too complex an issue for the Bushes to figure out):
-Thomas Jefferson would have publicly denounced the shootings, but would have tempered his remarks based upon the violent world in which he lived (i.e. his vice-president, Aaron Burr, killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel).
-Franklin Pierce would most likely have shrugged his shoulders and said absolutely nothing (as he did when outspoken Abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner was beaten with a cane by a Southerner on the Senate floor in 1856).
-James Buchanan would have kept mum, taking no decisive action whatsoever. The only bachelor president was notorious for saying and doing absolutely nothing as our antebellum country was coming apart at the seams.
-Abraham Lincoln would have risen to the occasion and, undoubtedly, delivered a speech comparable to the Gettysburg Address in both its brevity and magnitude.
-Teddy Roosevelt (despite being the benefactor of McKinley's assassination) would have denounced the Tucson shootings. But, in doing so, he would have firmly reinforced the importance of the Second Amendment. Despite being our first, great environmentalist, T.R. was also an avid hunter, killing thousands of animals during his lifetime. There’d be no call for gun control from the man who spoke softly but carried a big stick.
Of these five examples, it seems clear that President Obama followed Lincoln's lead. Obama's speech, and its conciliatory overtones, has been hailed by many as his greatest moment. This may indeed be the case. However, I think it's worth pointing out that the only truly unifying events in our nation’s long history have been outwardly-focused. Consider this: The Mexican-American War united Southerners and Northerners alike in a military action that delayed the Civil War by a few decades. Similarly, the Spanish-American War served as a catalyst in mending post-Civil War animosities by again bringing the North and South together in an outward-facing cause.
Our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are anything but unifying. So, do we need another Mexican-American War to end the fratricidal fighting in our country? There certainly seems to be one brewing. But the James K. Polk approach, in which we invaded Mexico while proclaiming "manifest destiny," would never work today. Cross border, Pancho Villa-like incursions by the Mexican drug cartels are another story, though. If such incidents were to occur in significant numbers, I could see our country becoming united again in the same way it was following 9/11.
One must accept that, from a historical standpoint, assassination is as American as baseball and apple pie. And, political discourse in a democracy will always be divisive (except during those rare moments of unity a la Pearl Harbor). True unity will only occur when it is ignited by a perceived threat beyond our borders. That doesn’t mean Obama has no influence to bring us together. Indeed, there is a right and wrong way to lead. I agree with Rep Sr. that Obama's post-Tucson remarks were the correct strategy for mitigating any further escalation of hate talk in America.