TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — President Barack Obama flew to Arizona Wednesday and headed straight to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ bedside to pay his respects to the wounded lawmaker as he sought to unify a mourning nation.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, were visiting privately at University Medical Center with Giffords and other victims of the weekend shootings that killed six people and wounded 13. He was then meeting with family members of those killed before speaking at a nighttime memorial service in Tucson.
“The president wanted to begin this solemn trip by stopping first at the hospital where Congresswoman Giffords and others continue to recuperate,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters traveling with the president. Giffords was the target of the first assassination attempt on a member of Congress in decades.
Inside the Intensive Care Unit at the hospital, the president spent about 10 minutes with Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly. He also met with four other victims from the shooting, including two of Giffords’ staff members who were wounded in the rampage. The president and the first lady also met with members of the trauma resuscitation team who were the first people to treat the victims.
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The president moved to the site of the memorial at the University of Arizona, where he met privately with families of the victims.
Searching for the right tone in the evening service, Obama aimed to console the country, not dissect its politics. In talking of those shot and killed, Obama will “reflect on how all of us might best honor their memory in our own lives,” his spokesman said.
The president was expected to speak for about 15 minutes. A bipartisan delegation of lawmakers accompanied him on Air Force One in a sign of solidarity.
Back on Capitol Hill, Giffords’ House colleagues praised her and the other shooting victims and insisted that violence would not silence democracy.
“We will have the last word,” declared new House Speaker John Boehner. He fought back tears as he described Giffords’ battle to recover from Saturday’s gunshot wound to her head.
Obama was again playing the role of national consoler that comes to all presidents and, in rare times, helps define them.
He drew on his own somber experience, following the shooting rampage by one of the military’s own members at the Fort Hood, Texas, Army post in 2009. Then, as expected now, Obama focused his comments on how the victims led their lives.
The president fine-tuned his speech as he flew across the country. He was to be the last speaker at the event at the University of Arizona’s basketball arena.
His main mission was to give a warm and honorable portrait of the six people who were killed at Giffords’ community outreach gathering last Saturday. Their stories have already taken hold in a country consumed by this sad story; among those who died were a 9-year-old-girl, a prominent judge and an aide to Giffords who was engaged to be married.
Obama was expected to speak about the courage of those who intervened to tackle the gunman and help the wounded. He was also assuring grieving families that the country was behind them. And to those grasping for answers, Obama was likely explore how “we can come together as a stronger nation” in the aftermath of the tragedy, as he put it earlier this week.
In times of calamity, the country has long turned to its presidents for the right words of assurance. It is test of leadership that comes with the job.
Recent history recalls George W. Bush with a bullhorn amid the rubble of Sept. 11, 2001, Bill Clinton’s leadership after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and Ronald Reagan’s response to the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, when he spoke about being “pained to the core.”
For Obama, the most instructive lesson may be one from his own presidency.
He led the memorial at Fort Hood, trying to help a shaken nation cope with a mass shooting that left 13 people dead and more than two dozen wounded. He spent the first part of that speech naming the people who had been killed and describing how they spent their lives; he used the second half to remind everyone of American endurance and justice.
The shootings, apparently a brazen attempt to kill a member of Congress, shattered a Saturday event Giffords had organized outside a grocery as a way for her constituents to chat with her.
Threats against lawmakers are not uncommon, but violence is rare. The last killing of a serving member of Congress was in November 1978, when Rep. Leo Ryan, a California Democrat, was murdered in the South American jungle of Guyana while investigating the Jonestown cult.
The Arizona episode has sparked a broader debate, unfolding in the media for days, about whether the vitriol of today’s politics played a role. Obama has long called for the importance of more civil political discourse, but he has made no comments on that in connection to this shooting, and he was not expected to choose Wednesday night’s event as the forum to do so.
Police say the man accused of the shootings, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, shot Giffords as well as many in the line of people waiting to talk with her. The attack ended when bystanders tackled the man. He is in jail on federal charges as police continue to investigate.
Four days after the shootings, Giffords was making small movements on her own. The three-term Democrat was expected to live. Obama was joined on Air Force One by Republican members of Arizona’s congressional delegation, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
By midafternoon, the university said 17,000 people were in line for the event, exceeding the arena’s intended capacity. Overflow seating was set up at the school’s football stadium, with a video of the proceedings to be played on the scoreboard screen.
The memorial service was an important part of the mourning process for some of those who had lined up hours in advance to gain a seat.
“If we don’t say goodbye and have a chance to say goodbye in an appropriate way, it will linger,” said Patty Siris, 62. “So, for me, it’s a closure.”
Feller reported from Washington. Gillian Flaccus in Tucson contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.