May 23, 2013

Obama all too familiar with Oklahoma's heartbreak, pain

From Newtown to Hurricane Sandy to Boston to Oklahoma, this president has faced an unprecedented string of tragedies.

The Associated Press

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In this October 31, 2012 file photo, President Obama embraces Donna VanzantI during a tour of a Brigantine, N.J., a neighborhood decimated by superstorm Sandy. When President Barack Obama travels to Oklahoma on Sunday to meet with the survivors of Monday's tornado, it will mark the third time this year that he has journeyed to a patch of America to console a community on behalf of the country.

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Harrison's decision not to visit Johnstown wasn't out of the ordinary. There is no record of President Ulysses S. Grant visiting Chicago after the great fire of 1871. Theodore Roosevelt didn't travel to San Francisco after the devastating earthquake of 1907. And after the Tri-State Tornado, which ripped through Illinois, Indiana and Missouri in 1925 and killed almost 700 people, Calvin Coolidge remained in Washington, urging the Red Cross to assist in tornado relief work.

Limited transportation was obviously a factor in the decisions made by these presidents, but their presence at the scene was also not viewed as being imperative. That, obviously, has changed.

"There is an expectation that the president will be there," says Adam Frankel, a former speechwriter in the Obama White House who worked with the president on the speech he gave after the West Virginia mine accident that claimed 29 lives. "And I think for [Obama], he sees the heartache and the destruction and he wants to be there. Obviously to make sure the resources of the government are there for them, but also if there's something he and the first lady can do personally to lift spirits, he wants to do that."

Indeed, lifting the spirits of a community, and by extension the nation, has become a much more important requirement of the modern president.

Although he didn't travel to the site of the Challenger explosion in Florida in 1986, President Ronald Reagan's empathetic speech to the nation that evening is widely admired as one of the great presidential addresses. Penned by Peggy Noonan, the speech reflected the nation's sorrow while offering solace and encouragement, particularly for the schoolchildren who had watched the explosion live on television. Similarly, President Bill Clinton's visit to Oklahoma City after the bombing of a federal building in 1995 marked a remarkable moment of national unity and purpose.

And George W. Bush was never more popular as a president than after his visit to the rubble of the World Trade Center on the Friday after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to meet with rescuers and express America's solidarity.

"We knew the president needed to go and be at the site," Hughes remembers. "We had not planned for him to speak because we had had a national prayer service in Washington that morning and those were his remarks for the day."

But as the president walked through Ground Zero it became clear that the workers wanted to hear from him, Hughes remembers. "And so someone came over to me and said, 'Should he say something?' and I looked around and realized, 'Yes, he should absolutely say something.' "

As the president began talking, workers started shouting, "We can't hear you!" And the president responded, "I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."

Hughes recalls, "I knew standing there — I just realized that it was a moment of such resolute conviction delivered at such an important time for our country that I knew it would become an iconic moment."

His visit to New York cheered Americans, but Bush's decision in 2005 to survey Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans by flying over rather than touching down in the city on his way home from vacation in Texas earned him widespread criticism and scathing rebukes.

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