Barack Obama doesn’t cry in public often.
It’s happened just four times since people started paying attention. The first was in North Carolina, the night before polls closed in 2008, when he told a crowd that his grandmother — “a quiet hero” — had just died; the second was four years later, almost to the day, at his last-ever campaign rally on a cold night in Iowa, the state where it all began; and the third was two days later, at campaign headquarters in Chicago, as he thanked his staff and told them that his work “had come full circle.”
The fourth time Obama let America see him cry was Dec. 14, in the White House briefing room, at 3:15 p.m. And this time, Obama’s tears weren’t about him or his grandmother or his winning campaign — he cried instead for 20 children and 6 adults who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, at the hand of a killer with a gun.
His tears may be the reason this time is different. If gun control legislation can pass, "it will be because people are responding as brothers and sisters, not as politicians,” said one gun control advocate, Third Way’s Matt Bennett. “This is a much more profound emotional response than we’ve ever seen. People are reacting in the most basic human way.”
Obama is too. In a five-minute address to reporters Friday, the president said, simply, “Our hearts are broken today.”
It was a line he’d used nearly two years earlier, at the memorial service for the victims of the shooting in Tucson, Arizona, where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot point-blank by Jared Lee Loughner.
Yes, “our hearts are broken,” Obama said in Tucson to a raucous crowd of 14,000 cheering over his words, “and yet, our hearts also have reason for fullness. Our hearts are full of hope and thanks for the 13 Americans who survived the shooting.”
That was the difference: There was still hope. Still time yet, he said, to have a debate on “everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health system.” But first, he warned, we need to “pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”
(Applause, cheers, more applause.)
Two years and three mass shootings later, a different Obama stood at the podium in the White House briefing room. Visibly stricken, tired — his eyes wet with tears.
“This evening,” Obama said, his cadence slow, “Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter, and we’ll tell them that we love them, and we’ll remind each other how deeply we love another.”
This had become Obama’s sad ritual — four times performed. Tucson, Aurora, Oak Creek, and now Newtown, with less publicized incidents in between. This time, though, it was personal. Obama spoke as the national parent. It was an approach he did not often take — as Jodi Kantor writes in her book, The Obamas, the president hadn’t “much played the traditional role of expressing the nation’s grief.”
But everything Obama would say that afternoon — and everything he would say that Sunday in Newtown — would be cast through the lens of the raw emotion he felt as a father. Any vow to the promised “meaningful action” would be taken whilst speaking, as he said Friday, “as a parent.”
It was a role Michelle Obama had played, mostly in private, six months earlier, during a visit to Aurora that she had all but insisted on taking.
On July 20, 2012, a man dressed as the Joker shot and killed 12 people during the midnight showing of the The Dark Knight Rises. In the heat of the summer months of his campaign, President Obama made remarks about the tragedy from a stop in Fort Myers, Florida, the morning after the shooting, and two days later he visited the University of Colorado hospital.
But nearly a month after the shooting — when the media furor had died down and the TV crews had gone home and the campaigns were preparing for the conventions — the Medical Center of Aurora received a call from Michelle Obama’s office.
The First Lady was coming to Colorado the next week for campaign events and wanted to stop by the hospital to meet with and thank staff members for their service during the shooting. The Medical Center of Aurora had treated 18 patients in total, although only three were still checked in by August.
“We weren’t allowed to tell anybody,” remembers Linda Kanamine, the hospital vice president who took the call. “Her staff said she didn’t want to make a big deal out of it and didn’t want to tell the press — it had to stay secret or it might not happen at all.”
The hospital resisted at first. The staff by that time was sick of VIP visitors — the governor had come three times, Christian Bale had made a very public trip to meet with victims, and the Denver Broncos football team insisted on coming too.
“Our staff was just tired,” Kanamine said. “We turned down a visit from Miss Colorado. We just said, ‘No, we can’t do that.’”
Hal Anderson — an EMT who worked the night of the shooting — remembers staffers who were “frustrated” by the celebs and cameras and handshakes. “At a certain point,” said Anderson, “it was like, these people are just trying to get their name in the newspaper. But you don’t say no to the First Lady.”
No, you don’t. And besides, the First Lady wanted to do a “low-key” visit in between her two campaign events. So on Aug. 11, she came for an hour and a half and everyone loved her.
“The staff understood that when she visited, it was on behalf of a nation,” said Kanamine. “It didn't matter who she was necessarily, she was there to say thank you on behalf of the nation.”
In a conference room near the hospital cafeteria, about 50 staffers — ER nurses, doctors, techs, everyone — lined up around the room. The First Lady started at the door and walked around the entire circle. Everybody got a hug.
“There was a lot of emotion from the staff. There were some tears,” said Cynthia Latney, head of the nursing staff at the hospital. It was Latney’s job to walk around the room with Michelle and introduce her to each employee. There was one who had happened to be in the theater at the time of the shooting, and when his turn came to meet the First Lady, “they were both very emotional,” said Latney. She just hugged him and said, ‘You make sure that you get some help and take care of yourself.’”
When she met Justin Mast — a longtime emergency nurse who rushed into the hospital at 1:30 a.m. on the night of the shooting — the First Lady wanted him to know that the country hadn’t forgotten Aurora.
“It just put things in perspective,” Mast said. “We knew that night that it was a big deal — that what was going on here was being watched and that everybody was proud of how we'd done our jobs — but she reminded us of that.”
Michelle Obama, who once worked as a hospital administrator in Chicago, knew all the right things to say, too. At one point she asked the group if anybody hadn’t been to sleep yet, and they knew then that she understood. “It was clearly a group of people she felt comfortable talking to,” Mast remembered.
Before she left, the First Lady met with the three victims still under the hospital’s care, spending about 10 minutes with each. One young man, still bed-bound in intensive care, would never be able to walk again. Escorted by Latney, Mrs. Obama walked into the room where his family was waiting. Flowers and teddy bears and pictures of classmates lined the walls.
“I’m so sorry this tragedy happened,” she said to him. The young man nodded his head — he couldn’t talk, but he could listen.
“She walked into the room and was there immediately as a mom,” said Latney. “She stood there with his mother and held their hands and kissed him on the forehead.”
When Michelle Obama left the hospital, the mayor and governor and police chief were waiting for a handshake and a photo op. Michelle Obama wouldn’t stay for more than three minutes before leaving for Denver for a campaign event at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where she would not mention the visit to Aurora in great detail. Later, on Aug. 23, she sent a personal letter to Latney letting her know that “the country [was] eternally grateful” for the work of the hospital staff in Aurora.
Michelle Obama went to Aurora as a mother; President Obama spoke as a father in Newtown on Sunday, Dec. 16.
Air Force One touched down at Bradley Air Force base just before 4 p.m., and Obama spent about three hours meeting with Sandy Hook survivors and families, before delivering a speech that — as the White House pooler noted dutifully — Obama had authored himself, with help only on edits from speechwriter Cody Keenan.
It was a more solemn crowd this time than the one that greeted him in Tucson. No cheering university students. The room was silent, save for the sound of a baby crying, or a sob from the audience. Obama wore a black suit and a dark gray tie. He read from paper instead of a teleprompter. He told the audience that this would be the nation’s “fourth time” hugging survivors and consoling victims’ families during his presidency.
“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end,” said Obama. “Surely, we can do better than this. If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from this grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try.”
Without saying the words “gun control,” Obama made it clear he intended to take action on the issue, lest Americans not fulfill what he called “our first task — caring for our children," said Obama. "It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.”
“In the coming weeks,” Obama went on, “I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens — from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators — in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine.”
The speech won instant praise on Twitter from the political class. “Folks, sometimes a speech that fits the tone and moment is worthy of praise. No matter where you stand on the president,” wrote the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza. “That may be the finest speech Obama has ever given,” said the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza.
Even Obama’s Republican opponents had something nice to say. “An excellent speech,” tweeted Tim Miller, spokesman at the Republican National Committee. Brad Dayspring, senior advisor to the Young Guns Action Fund, added, “That was one hell of a speech. Written from a father’s eyes.”
“I’ve never seen him more emotional,” Third Way’s Bennett told BuzzFeed. “This has hit him right in the gut.”
But like Michelle Obama’s visit to Aurora, it was a moment that could have been political, but just wasn’t. Policy stripped to a single motivation — “that we’re all parents; that they’re all our children,” in President Obama's words.
David Maraniss, the Obama biographer, logged into Twitter to lay down the gospel. “People will long remember what Barack Obama said in Newtown,” he wrote. “His Gettysburg address.”