I had an opportunity on Sunday few journalists will have — I had the chance to see the president of the United States in person. No, it wasn’t a press conference or a personal interview, so I had no chance to actually ask him any questions. It was a memorial service for the 142, and counting, people who died in the EF-5 tornado which struck Joplin, Mo., just one week ago.
It was, in many ways, President Barack Obama’s stock speech. He thanked the people around him, promised the federal government would be there, and pulled out a couple of stories of local everyday folks — his (and pretty much any president’s) usual fare.
It was not a major policy speech, nor was it announcing some new initiative. No, this was simply a president comforting his people a week after an indescribable tragedy struck.
And that, I must say, he did well. I’m far from a fan of this president, and this speech did not by any stretch win me to his side. But one cannot help but be inspired by what the president said: “There’s no doubt in my mind that Joplin will rebuild. And as president, I can promise you your country will be there with you every single step of the way. We will be with you every step of the way. We’re not going anywhere. The cameras may leave. The spotlight may shift. But we will be with you every step of the way until Joplin is restored and this community is back on its feet. We’re not going anywhere.” Certainly, most of the 2,000 people in the Taylor Performing Arts Center on the campus of Missouri Southern State University were inspired by his words.
Even as the president followed an established formula, the stories his speechwriters pulled out to illustrate the everyday heroism of Joplinites were not your usual fare.
The president spoke of two men who sacrificed their lives not for their wives or children, but for their customers. Dean Wells was an electrical department manager at the Home Depot store which took a direct hit. Wells went back in again and again, moving people to safety until one of the walls fell on him. Obama also told the story of Christopher Lucas, 26, who was the father of two girls, with a third on the way. He was a manager at a local Pizza Hut. When the sirens went off, Lucas got everyone into the walk-in freezer. But there was no way to lock it from the inside, so Lucas tied a bungee cord around the handle on the outside and held the door as long as he could — ultimately being sucked out of the freezer but saving the lives of a dozen people.
Was it right for Obama to take up the valuable time of rescuers and volunteers touring the wreckage? I don’t know. At least one person I talked to after the event didn’t think so.
Rosie Peterson of Duenweg, Mo., who was in the destroyed 15th Street Wal-Mart store when the tornado hit, said she wasn’t even aware Obama was going to be at the memorial service until she arrived.
“It was what I expected,” she said of the speech. “Honestly. it’s just more chaos.”
For me, I’m torn. On the one hand, a presidential visit in the midst of a crisis is one more added layer of complexity in an already complex and difficult situation — something the aid workers do not need. At the same time, whatever your political orientation, the person of the president carries great weight, and it’s always heartening to a community to know the president, personally, cares about what happened to them.
Will his visit help energize a community which has taken far too many shocks over the last week? In the days and weeks ahead, the spotlight will shift, the media will move on to new stories, new disasters. The people of Joplin will still be there rebuilding. Letting them know they’re not forgotten is not the least important of a president’s jobs.