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A Tearful Break in “Politics As Usual”

His cheek stayed moist for at least a minute. The camera, it seemed, was mesmerized by that remnant tear. I know I was. Eventually, he wiped it away with a sort of gentle and almost humbled brush of his hand.

His equilibrium returned. The usual cadence of his emboldened speech came back. But all was not the same.

I’m referring, of course, to the stunning moment during President Barack Obama’s address about gun violence last Tuesday when he broke down in front of the world.

It’s worth watching his entire speech — a forceful and cogent summary of what gun violence has done in the last few years to this country, our moral obligation to do something about it, and an impressively comprehensive list of actions that are being taken immediately. But I focus on this minute or two because it struck me as a radical, if not intentional, moment in our otherwise calculated and cowardly political times.

He speaks of the first-grade victims at Sandy Hook Elementary and the emotion appears to wash through him. Even as he tries to continue as planned, you can see that he has been thoroughly hijacked by feeling. After President Obama takes a moment to collect himself in silence, he continues, in what appears to be a completely unscripted moment:

“Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad. And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.”

To me, these two sentences say more about the kind of person I want to elect to one of the most morally treacherous offices in the land than all the debates combined. His capacity to feel real, inconvenient, vulnerable emotions in such a public setting is reassuring to me. It shows that his humanity is a stronger force than his delivery.

Further, his testimony that he feels such emotion every single time that he thinks about these slain children, which is no doubt frequent in the lead-up to taking a highly unusual executive action, is also noble. It means that the abstraction of policy, the inanity of partisanship, none of it is more powerful than his basic connection to the sadness and anger of these losses.

All of us have feared the numbing of our own hearts in a news cycle of such relentless sadness. Imagine if you were not just a caring citizen, but the citizen most likely, at some level, to be held responsible for the day’s cruelest headlines. Imagine how difficult it would be to keep your heart from hardening.

The second unscripted line is equally moving. In about a dozen words, President Obama fearlessly inserts race and class into the center of the conversation. The kids getting gunned down on the streets of Chicago — Dantrell Davis, Ryan Harris, Eric Morse, Tyshawn Lee — are black. They’re often forgotten, at least by the larger public. Their deaths certainly didn’t inspire million in donations. And not one of their lives is worth any less than the lives of those children lost in Sandy Hook.

President Obama reminds us of this, in no uncertain terms, with just one, piercing sentence. He picks Chicago, because that is home for him. He picks his home, because it reminds us that he was one of those children, too. Their value is presidential; their loss, profound.

I’m so turned off by politics these days. It feels like one huge circus, distracting journalists from covering the wide range of serious issues that deserve the spotlight. At their worst, politicians seem driven almost entirely by big money. At their best, they seem to speak every word, offer every gesture, based on a poll about how such a word or gesture will be interpreted by the voting public.

But this, this brief break from politics as usual, felt different.

I cried along with the president. I thought about my own daughter and the palpable rage I would feel if anything so senseless and violent ever happened to her. I have no idea how my spirit would recover. It baffles me that anyone’s ever does.

I looked at the people surrounding the president on that stage, mothers and fathers and partners of the dead, and even victims of gun violence themselves. I was reminded of how resilient human beings are, and how resilient they should never have to be.

For a brief moment, politics reunited me with my own humanity. I haven’t experienced that in years.

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