Every president has their moment. For John F. Kennedy it came early, on the steps of the Capitol delivering his inaugural address. For George W. Bush it came through tragedy, finding him atop a smoldering pile of twisted steel in New York City with a bullhorn in his hands.
For Barack Obama, that moment found him in an arena in Charleston, South Carolina, surrounded by a solemn black clergy draped in purple robes when he paused, and we heard it:
A preacher behind the president stood up so quickly you’d think he had sat on a tack. A voice from off camera shouted “Sing it, my president!” And this young man a thousand miles away felt a heat wave hit his cheeks as condensation slowly released itself from his eyes.
As he’ll tell you himself, Barack Obama gave far too many national addresses following mass shootings to the point that he admitted he had run out of ways to describe tragedy. So in that respect, another eulogy was nothing new. We had even seen the president become emotional before, when tears raced down his cheeks while he read the names of slain six year-olds after Newtown.
But there was something different about this day. Here was our nation’s first black president standing among a black congregation, addressing an audience of thousands of black mourners coping with a crime perpetrated by a young white man who told police he committed the act with malice and hate in the muscle where his heart should have been for those born of a different skin color.
This was a moment only Barack Obama could have embraced.
He spoke with a steady, deliberate conviction, reaching deep to bare his soul to the country as a man of god and thus delivering to us a brother, not a president. His freight train like momentum propelled him to reach poignant peaks and touch stoic valleys. His poise, posture, and buttery baritone demonstrated to all that never in a million years would hate triumph of the power of love, faith, and family.
As a white male born in the shadow of the nations capital, I won’t ever be able to understand what President Obama was feeling that morning as looked himself in the mirror while perfecting the dimple in his soft blue tie. But each time I have watched that speech – a number I won’t reveal – I have felt my eyes well-up, my throat tighten, and my head slowly bob in approval.
President Obama knows the power of his words and how to harness the energy of his audience. When he leaves the teleprompter behind and starts hitting each line with the cadence of a drumline and John Williams-esque crescendo it’s impossible to look away. During the campaign I so often found myself glued to the screen as he giddily chided Donald Trump that my coworkers came to saying I’d “gone to church” when they’d notice a prolonged pause in the clicking from my keyboard.
Like a Marvel character who wakes up to find they have super-strength, Barack Obama has used his powers for good.
Symbols and moments matter. It is why we fly flags at half-staff or why police wear a badge and not jeans. No flag will ever bring back a national hero, and no uniform will ever catch a robber, but they serve as public markers for respect, law, and order. Much in this way, President Obama’s forty minute confessional that fateful day in Charleston served as an instrument of healing.
Just imagine for a second the aftermath of Charleston without President Obama.
Imagine another mass shooting gone unanswered, but this time with the spectre of our nation’s dark racial history looming large. Imagine another terse eulogy, one that didn’t end in the most powerful man in the nation opening himself up to mockery by singing off key on national television. Imagine another cookie-cutter press release mourning the loss of “fill in the blank” souls, instead of the symbol of freedom discussing the history of the oppressed.
If you think history would have arced the same, tell that to the audience members whose cheeks could have ended a drought that day, or to the preacher who, sitting with his eyes closed, repeated “preach it, my president” like a metronome throughout the address.
Living across a vast and diverse land we often don’t have the ability to meet our fellow citizen, to worship with them, to laugh or cry with them, or to share with them our inner most fears and dreams. Instead it is moments like this, where sitting at home or at the office we can each identify with the feelings of the only man in our country who speaks from behind that great seal.
That day, standing among mourning members of a shaken community, the president reminded us of the type of man he is. He chose forgiveness and fortitude over vengeance and vitriol. He showed us the power of humility and grace.
He showed us why we’re going to miss him.
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