Ronald Reagan after the Challenger disaster. Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing. George W. Bush after the terror attacks in Washington and New York. Barack Obama after the church shooting in Charleston. And now this. Donald Trump after Las Vegas.
In some ways — not in the American Constitution but surely in the American tradition — the president is the nation’s first responder.
These are sober moments of condolence and compassion, the sort chief executives neither expect nor are prepared for, the kind that call upon presidential presence. For Trump — whose responses to the episode in Charlottesville, Virginia, and even the subway bombing in London stirred rather than cooled passions — this was an important challenge, especially so for a president who has stretched the boundaries of presidential comportment and yet has struggled to appear presidential.
And amid the flash of news reports and the reckoning of body counts growing out of the worst mass shooting in the country’s history, Trump — still under criticism for his response to the Puerto Rico hurricane disaster and for his attacks on the mayor of San Juan — responded to both the news and the moment. For his critics there was little to criticize.
He produced a spare statement, expressed the nation’s grief, and pledged to visit the scene. Simple, perhaps, but significant in Trump’s presidential passage, which so often has been marked by excess — his own, and his critics’.
It was a minute waltz of woe: He did not say anything he did not know. He did not stumble over awkward wording. His suit jacket was buttoned, his tie was somber. He did not use the occasion to campaign for specific legislation or political gain. And when he used the pronoun “I” it was in service of conveying his thanks, as in “I want to thank the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and all of the first responders for their courageous efforts.”
There is no playbook for presidential response, yet whether inadvertently, instinctively, or intentionally, Trump hit many of the touchstones of presidential tragedy response.
Like Bush after the terrorist attacks, Trump employed the word “evil” to describe the acts that brought tragedy to America’s door. Like Obama after the Charleston shootings, Trump sought to find consolation in calamity. In connecting the church killings to decades of violence against black houses of worship, Obama said he was “confident that the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love across Charleston today, from all races, from all faiths, from all places of worship indicates the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome.” In urging Americans not to surrender to anguish, Trump said, “Even the most terrible despair can be illuminated by a single ray of hope.”
Like Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombings, the president leaned on Scripture. Clinton quoted Romans 2:21, urging Americans “not [to] be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Trump’s urging were in his own words: “Scripture teaches us the Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. We seek comfort in those words, for we know that God lives in the hearts of those who grieve.”
And like Reagan after the Challenger spacecraft disaster, Trump expressed sober and sincere thanks. To the engineers, technicians and aerospace scientists of NASA, the 40th president said, “Your dedication and professionalism have moved and impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it.” To the police and rescue squad workers of Las Vegas, the 45th president said, “The speed with which they acted is miraculous and prevented further loss of life.”
In that Challenger speech, Reagan quoted the Canadian aviator and poet John Gillespie Magee Jr., saying Americans would not forget the astronauts who waved goodbye on their way to the space shuttle, and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.” Mr. Trump made no such literary allusions, but, “I know we are searching for some kind of meaning in the chaos, some kind of light in the darkness,” Trump said during his brief remarks. “The answers do not come easy.”
That, too, is in the American presidential tradition. In perhaps the greatest American speech, Abraham Lincoln expressed wonder and mystery at the tragedy of the Civil War. “The Almighty has his own purposes,” Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, in 1865, a month before the war would end and he would be assassinated, before quoting the Book of Matthew: “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.”
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.