By MARSHA MERCER
Not too hot and not too cold, President Barack Obama’s eulogy at the memorial service in Tucson struck many Americans as just right. He was inspiring and personal as he urged Americans to “be better.”
“The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better. To be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors and coworkers and parents,” the president said.
And if the horrendous toll – six dead and 14 wounded, including a member of Congress -- helps “usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy – it did not – but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation,” he said.
Sounds good. Now what?
The divided Congress is going back to work on highly contentious issues, including repeal of the health law. Partisanship in a two-party system isn’t going away. In short: Don’t expect a kumbaya phase or even a kumbaya moment.
On Thursday, back at the White House after the Tucson trip, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary who soon will be leaving for Obama’s re-election campaign, said, “We are not going to remove disagreement from our democracy. And we shouldn’t.”
Obama says he hopes people can disagree without being disagreeable. Gibbs stressed, “I think you’re going to see plenty of opportunities in the next few years where you have those disagreements.”
If Obama’s rhetoric Wednesday night was soaring, Gibbs’ remarks Thursday reflected thudding, earthbound reality. Changing the tone in Washington and the nation will be nearly impossible, even after an event as horrible as the tragedy in Tucson.
Anyone who has ever made a new year’s resolution knows that vague generalities to be better -- “I’m going to watch my eating!” – don’t work. To change, people need to set specific goals. “I’m going to keep a food diary and eat fish twice a week.”
To be sure, the memorial service was not the time for Obama to go into detail about next steps. But, going forward, those who want to help change the tenor of life will need to seize opportunities to flex our better muscles.
For example, many Americans will spend Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday rededicating themselves to the country through a “Day of Service.” Special volunteer activities are taking place in all 50 states, but people don’t need to stop after one day.
Several online organizations – including serve.gov, VolunteerMatch.org and createthegood.org – invite volunteers to enter their Zip codes and find local volunteer activities. When I typed mine, I found more than a thousand places needing help within 20 miles.
Here’s another idea. To show they’re serious about putting civility first, House Republicans should scuttle plans to hold multiple votes on repealing the new health law, and Obama should delay the launch of his re-election bid.
The president says he wants to build on bipartisan progress from the lame duck session, but news reports indicate Obama plans to launch his 2012 campaign in Chicago by the end of this month. Doing so certainly would shout “politics as usual” at a time when everyone needs to use his or her “indoor voices” to tackle the country’s challenges.
The State of the Union address Jan. 25 offers an opportunity for partisan theatre to take a night off.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., wrote the Senate and House leadership proposing that “House and Senate members from both sides ought to cross the aisle and sit together. As the nation watches, Democrats and Republicans should reflect the interspersed character of America itself. Perhaps by sitting with each other for one night, we will begin to rekindle that common spark that brought us here…”
If members of both parties sat together, viewers would be spared the tennis match effect of watching Democrats on one side cheering and leaping to their feet while Republicans sit glumly silent on the other, highlighting all that divides the nation. Udall has a petition at his Senate Web site – markudall.senate.gov – that people can sign to “Help Bridge the Partisan Divide.”
The senator concedes it’s symbolic, but it’s a gesture that puts Congress on the track to change.
© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.