In times of national tragedy such as the Boston marathon attacks, the American public looks to its leaders to say something profound and meaningful.
Before the television era, Americans once gathered around radios to hear what their president had to say, and so it was a shocked nation that heard Franklin Delano Roosevelt declare, “Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, a still shocked but newly sworn-in President Lyndon B. Johnson stood on the tarmac of Andrews Air Force Base with his wife at his side and said, “This is a sad time for all people. We have suffered a great loss that cannot be weighed… I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help – and God’s.”
When the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986, killing the crew of seven and America’s first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe, President Ronald Reagan scrapped his planned State of the Union speech scheduled for that evening and instead delivered an Oval Office address that brought comfort to a nation that had never experienced an in-flight tragedy of that sort. His closing words are remembered as some of the most poignant ever delivered by a man called “The Great Communicator.” Quoting portions of the poem “High Flight,” by the American poet John Gillespie Magee, killed while serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II, he said: “The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”
After returning to the White House following the murderous attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush spoke from the Oval Office to a stunned and grieving nation. In describing the horrific events of that day as a “series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts,” he stated, “A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve. America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining.”
Sadly, modern history is full of moments such as these. They become the quotable quotes that we remember, along with where we were and what we were doing when we heard them. With the tragic attacks in Boston, we now have another chapter to add of words offered by a president when our nation has endured a tragedy that no one wishes had ever happened.
President Obama’s words from the White House Briefing Center the evening of the April 15th Boston Marathon attacks were forceful and direct. “We still do not know who did this or why. And people shouldn’t jump to conclusions before we have all the facts. But make no mistake – we will get to the bottom of this. And we will find out who did this; we’ll find out why they did this. Any responsible individuals, any responsible groups will feel the full weight of justice.”
To people in the communications business, they would say “He was on message,” meaning he said all the right things in a manner that was strong, forceful and confident. When people heard them, they knew he meant business, but sometimes you can say all the right things and leave one thing out. In this case, it was one word – terrorism.
It’s the omission of that word from earlier White House announcements by the president and his staff from incidents such as the attempted bombing of an inbound Detroit airliner by underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab; the murderous shootings at Fort Hood by U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan; and the Sept. 11, 2012 attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya that have relentlessly fueled the president’s critics on issues such as these. Actions that have crossed the line from singular criminal acts to incidents of greater strategic consequence are always open to debate, but in the case of the Boston Marathon bombings, the only person not using the word “terrorism” is the president.
First hand witnesses; federal, state and local law enforcement – including the FBI who will preside over the investigation of the incident; first responders; subject matter experts including current and former security officials who have worked incident such as these before; members of the media and even unnamed White House officials serving President Obama have all described the horrific events at one of sports greatest assemblies as “an act of terror.”
Sometimes it is what is not said that stands out the most from a statement. In the case of this president, his non-use of the word emboldens and fuels critics who will fairly as well as unfairly go after him and his administration in ways that will be more distracting than helpful.
There may indeed be legitimate reasons why he did not use that word. His briefing by his senior staff may have cautioned against it, but there comes a time, regardless of whatever legal or intelligence counsel a president is offered, that you have to call an event what it very simply was, and this was one of those instances.
One of the things people hate most about Washington is our parsing of words. In this case, I fear the president’s non-use of one word will be distraction that no one needs. It may just be one word, but it’s the most accurate descriptor of the unleashed carnage that has now struck another of America’s greatest cities. It’s also the one word no city, American or otherwise, ever wants to have its name associated with. Sadly, Boston is now a new member of a most tragic club.
My hope for the president is he finally says what we all know, and if he really wants to lead in a situation such as this, speaking the truth about it in one word will say a whole lot more than not ever saying it at all. That’s what leaders do.