Historians comment on Obama role as consoler in chief

Historians in the News

James Gordon Meek was standing over the gravestone of a friend killed in Iraq when he noticed a familiar figure walking near him.

President Obama was walking through what's called "the saddest acre in America," Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The section is the burial ground for U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama hugged graveside visitors, shook hands and listened to mourners while a "bone-chilling drizzle" fell, Meek says. As he watched Obama, Meek says he saw his commander in chief take on a new role: the consoler in chief...

... Roles of Lincoln, Reagan cited as 'griever in chief'

In the days ahead, Obama must master those moments to sustain support for the war in Afghanistan, says Jerald Podair, a history professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Podair says Lincoln did this during the Civil War when he wrote a tender letter to the widow Lydia Bixby, who had lost five sons in battle. (During his recent speech on Afghanistan, Obama said that he had to sign letters personally to every fallen soldier's family.)

President Reagan was also at his empathetic best when he honored the victims of the space shuttle Challenger disaster with a tender, poetic speech, Podair says.

"Grief is the one part of a president's job that cannot be spun. It must be personal and come from the heart," Podair says.

Yet the cool and cerebral Obama is not known for opening his heart, Podair says...

... If Obama bungles a public occasion for mourning, he can permanently damage his ability to lead, some historians say.

President George H.W. Bush was joking with reporters during a televised press conference in 1989 when several news stations decided to show a split-screen image of the coffins of U.S. soldiers recently killed in Panama being taken off military planes, says Gary Woodward, a professor of communication studies at The College of New Jersey.

The elder Bush had no control over the broadcast decision, but the damage was done, says Woodward, who later wrote about the incident in an essay. It reinforced the perception that Bush was out of touch with ordinary Americans, something that would haunt him during his re-election campaign, he says.
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