Obama's Fort Hood Speech: Lost in Translation

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Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

President Barack Obama speaks behind the helmet and weapon of a fallen soldier during the III Corps and Fort Memorial Ceremony on Nov. 10, 2009, honoring the victims of the Fort Hood shootings

Lincoln was lucky. His speech at Gettysburg wasn't televised, and so he wasn't subjected to hours of commentary in advance of his address, setting expectations, or hours after his speech, analyzing his every word.

No one tried to tease out the difference between his "Commander in Chief moment" and his "pastor-in-chief role," as various TV pundits undertook to do while waiting for President Barack Obama to speak at a memorial service Tuesday for the men and women killed last week in the massacre at Fort Hood. Televised speeches now come larded in so much analysis, before and after, that it becomes almost impossible to connect with them in a genuine, visceral way.

Today, everything is a set piece of some kind, framed as a recapitulation of a familiar form. Former Bush speechwriter and now columnist Michael Gerson was just one of many voices filling the empty air with comparisons of Obama's yet-to-be speech with the words of George W. Bush after 9/11, of Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing, of Ronald Reagan after the Challenger explosion. And every set piece is political, whether it should be or not, as we learned from the repeated observation that Obama's speech would be a sort of prelude to his awaited decision on strategy and troop levels in the Afghanistan war.

Obama's speech was somber and concise. He spoke of the dead as individuals, which was sorrowful, and also as exemplars, which was inspiring. He made some points well worth making.

"Neither this country — nor the values that we were founded upon — could exist without men and women like these 13 Americans," Obama said. "Their life's work is our security and the freedom that we too often take for granted. Every evening that the sun sets on a tranquil town; every dawn that a flag is unfurled; every moment that an American enjoys life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — that is their legacy."

On the eve of another Veterans Day in the long 9/11 war — the ninth and certainly not the last — the President also stressed that Americans of this era require no old newsreels or cracked-glass negatives to find figures worthy of gratitude and a little awe. "This generation has more than proved itself the equal of those who have come before. We need not look to the past for greatness, because it is before our very eyes," the President said.

Simple truths are often the best. But even these, on television, come swimming now against a current of expectations: Is this line a signal about future troop levels? Is that paragraph a veiled play for bipartisan support on health care? Is the tone appropriately pastoral in this section and sufficiently martial in the next? TV's original power was its immediacy, its you-are-there quality. More and more, it seeks instead to mediate. A nation of citizens is invited to become a culture of critics.

For this reason, distant viewers were even more removed from the estimated 15,000 soldiers and civilians who gathered under clear Texas skies to hear the prayers, hymns and speeches in person. While their grief was more hard-earned, their experience was more authentic. They waited for the beginning of the service in appropriate silence — a fact the television commentators could hardly stop talking about.

The crowd in Texas was free to react without coaching. To be stirred, perhaps, by Army Chief of Staff General George Casey's steely recital of "the warrior ethos." To be humbled by "those who signed up," as Obama put it, "knowing that they would serve in harm's way." Maybe to feel a moment's hollowness, in which understanding meets its limits, everything is still and no words can do justice.