Some doubt the Old Testament account of a battle in which the “sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies.” I had greater doubt it would be possible to set aside political differences so we could come together to honor our fallen heroes at the West memorial service Thursday.
Imagine Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn sharing a platform with President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. In any other setting, this would surely have generated some political sparks. It was earlier this same month that Obama had called the Senate’s failure to pass gun-purchase background-check legislation shameful. Cornyn responded that calling the Senate shameful was itself shameful.
As I made my way to the Ferrell Center, my dread over the grief about to be experienced en masse was compounded by my concern that the ceremonies would be marred by someone shouting something rude at the president, or worse. Given that happens at a State of the Union address these days, I could only hope a memorial service was a last refuge for mutual respect.
Earlier in the week, someone local posted to our McLennan County Democratic Party Facebook page that she hoped to see Obama in a parade in Dallas. Whether this was a reference to President Kennedy’s death or merely a genuine desire to see the president was resolved when this same person sent an email informing us that she thought “Obama makes Hitler look like a fair and reasonable man.” Also recently in Waco, the Texas attorney general remarked that a Democratic attempt to turn the state from red to blue was more of a threat than a nuclear-armed North Korea.
A review of comments on nearly any political website or story will confirm that nastiness, name-calling and negativity are all in high fashion, from multiple places on the political spectrum. I held my breath hoping that the gravity of the events in West was sufficient that at least this one day our common bonds as neighbors and citizens would prevail over the political allegiances that so often divide us. I hoped for a day that we would share with the world the strength of the ties that bind us.
Surrounded by thousands of firefighters who every day offer to give their lives for others and the flag-draped coffins of those who had, something magical happened.
President Obama was greeted with a standing ovation. Gov. Perry paused his remarks to thank the Obamas for taking the time to be with us. Sen. Cornyn then introduced the president. The president wove together a message of comfort and hope, using a verse from the book of Psalms, tying in tragedies elsewhere in the country, and assuring us that the entire nation considered themselves our neighbors. No one shouted “liar!” as in the State of the Union speech nor attempted any other rude interruption. There were, however, seven or more times that his message was interrupted by applause.
Near the end of his speech, after acknowledging the love and devotion in videotaped testimonials about the dead and the strong presence of thousands of firefighters and first responders, he said: “All across America, people are praying for you and thinking of you. And when they see the faces of those families, they understand that these are not strangers — these are neighbors. And that’s why we know that we will get through this.”
In that moment, I came to believe it was true, for those attending and those on the platform had conducted themselves like neighbors, not people desperate to score a political point or too blinded by hate to recognize a fellow human.
I left emotionally exhausted but grateful the focus had been on the first responders who gave their lives and on those who must try to live their lives without them. It was a day when politics stood still.
David Schleicher is a local attorney who serves as interim chairman of the McLennan County Democratic Party.