I had just left my job in the Clinton administration. It was a spring morning. April 19, 1995. A bomb went off at the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City.
I did not know, at that moment, what a big part of my professional life that event would become — the first major news story of my journalism career; the many months I would spend in Denver covering the two federal trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols; and the execution of McVeigh another three years after that. All I knew in April 1995 was that 168 people were dead. 19 of them were children. And we knew that this was the worst act of domestic terrorism on U.S. soil, ever.
We came together as a nation around that tragedy, as we do around few things. Before the arrests, before the trials, before conspiracy theories, we focused on the victims, their families and Oklahoma City.
President Clinton was no longer my boss. So along with my fellow citizens, I simply listened to our president as he stepped to the microphone, in an effort to bring the nation together — to lead.
As we wait to hear from President Obama after this latest horror that's brought a national pause, I keep thinking about Clinton's words then. Every president has that first moment of national tragedy — that first opportunity to remind us who and what we are as a nation. Unfortunately for George W. Bush it was 9/11. But I will never forget a dignified and composed President Reagan announcing the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in the 1980s. And of course, there is FDR’s famous Pearl Harbor speech. These are moments that define a presidency and our country.
Bill Clinton was (and still is) famous for long speeches. But he kept his speech following the Oklahoma City bombing exceptionally short. That would be the first lesson for Obama to take for tonight. Keep it short. Second, don’t make it about politics. Whether the act itself was or wasn’t political (and we still don’t yet know what motivated Jared Loughner last Saturday), tonight is not the night to take on the Tea Party. Focus on the victims — those lives lost, and the survivors.
At the same time, President Obama can subtly acknowledge the spirit of divisiveness and fear that is pervasive in the body politic. In that way, the president can gently help the nation turn the corner to a better place. Here, President Clinton would have quoted the Bible. Perhaps Bible-thumping is not President Obama’s style, but the message should be the same.
“Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear. When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life,” Clinton said, before invoking St. Paul. "Let us not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Jami Floyd is a broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues.