On Sunday night, President Obama delivered extraordinary information when he interrupted the Sunday-night TV schedule to announce the death of Osama bin Laden. It was a moment of triumph for the country, and for the American troops involved in the killing of bin Laden. The President was suitably measured yet forceful in his remarks.
Obama’s address to the nation is in keeping with many other moments in Presidential history, in which our leaders have taken to the media to speak to Americans about matters of urgent import. To take just a few:
In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a speech to Congress, broadcast via radio, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, in which he assured us “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.”
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan delivered an eloquent preface to a press conference about the attack on a U.S. military post in Lebanon, mincing no words: “Yesterday’s acts of terrorism in Beirut which killed so many young American and French servicemen were a horrifying reminder of the type of enemy that we face in many critical areas of the world today — vicious, cowardly, and ruthless… “
And President George W. Bush attempted the near-impossible in trying to comfort the country in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks. In a televised address, he said, in part, “Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shattered steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.”
There’s another context in which to view Obama’s remarks. It now seems, in retrospect, all the more striking that Obama gave the speech he did at the White House Correspondents Dinner on Saturday. We can now realize that, as he delivered the stinging zingers aimed at Donald Trump’s birther idiocy, Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, and funding cuts for NPR, Obama knew what was going on in the mission to kill bin Laden.
Post-bin Laden, doesn’t it already seem amazing that so much recent media coverage has been consumed by the subjects Obama lampoons here, subjects that require Lion King footage to convey the full ridiculousness of what, as they say, “dominates the conversation”?
One of the things that drives Obama’s political critics crazy is the media characterization of the President as a cool customer, a serenely calm multi-tasker. (Of course, this is also one reason Obama has also been compared to Ronald Reagan’s media image — that of a skillful communicator adept at putting audiences, in the press corps or throughout the nation, at ease.) This weekend, I think few can doubt the man can juggle matters of great historical import, as well as frivolous irritants and pop-culture absurdities, with the right tone for each matter.