Sunday, June 12, 2011

Photographs and Anxieties

I seldom hear much about Gabrielle Giffords these days.

That is how it should be, I guess.

After all, she was news on the day she was shot — and in the days that followed, when her dramatic fight for life was played out on the nation's TV screens in the form of medical briefings.

But, for most of the last five months, she has been just another patient and the details of her treatment have remained out of public view. She did survive a wound that was worse than many that hospital personnel usually see, but most of the milestones in her recovery have been observed in private.

Lately, though, Giffords has been back in the spotlight — sort of. She has remained in the shadows, but she was on hand when her husband's space shuttle mission began, and then she was in the news again after undergoing major surgery to repair her skull.

Her doctor says she is coming along splendidly and has taken to calling her "Gorgeous Gaby."

Giffords will probably recede from public view now and resume the arduous task of recovering from her injuries — which is fine with me ...

... except for the fact that her mere presence at the shuttle launch, the reports of her milestone surgery and now the posting of the first photos of Giffords since the shooting have revived thoughts that I couldn't avoid in January but nevertheless managed to tuck away for the last few months.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since January, but try to recall the atmosphere if you can.

The immediate reaction of Democrats was that the shooting had been perpetrated by a right–wing extremist and that it was the inevitable outcome of the incendiary political environment.

A lot of the blame was directed at the so–called Tea Party and Sarah Palin — even though all evidence suggested that the gunman was not motivated by politics and had no links to either.

Democrats were reluctant to acknowledge that, which I believe reveals the true source for the Democrats' behavior. Fear of a — for the most part — faceless them.

It's political paranoia that is worthy of Richard Nixon.

I sensed a lot of fear among Democrats when Republicans captured both houses of Congress in 1994. Democrats had held at least one chamber of Congress every year for 40 years, and many were fearful that they had lost their grip on legislative power forever.

That hasn't happened, of course. President Clinton was re–elected in 1996, and a Democrat was elected president in 2008. In between, Democrats recaptured Congress and expanded their majorities before losing the House last year.

But that 1994 experience is fresh enough in their memories that many Democrats are fearful of losing whatever they have and will do whatever they believe must be done — including sacrifice some of their commitments — to keep it.

Some saw what they interpreted as unmistakable signs of erosion in their base when Republicans took control of the House in 2010's midterm elections, and they are fearful that the second shoe will drop in 2012 when Democrats could well become victims of their own success as they defend two–thirds of the Senate seats that will be on the ballot.

That is only one fear, though.

Another fear, I believe, was to be found in the response to the attack on Giffords.

Since the 1960s, Democrats have been conditioned to believe that someone or a group or a conspiracy of some sort has been resisting their leaders and their causes. They saw three of their prominent leaders assassinated in the 1960s, then they saw Democratic presidents smeared (one successfully, one unsuccessfully) in the 1970s and 1990s.

And they have been fearful that something like that could happen again.

With this president — the first black president — there was always an unspoken concern in every conversation in which I participated — even before he was elected — that, at some point, somebody would take a shot at him.

I believe that is, in large part, why Democrats have been so quick to accuse people who disagree with Obama of being racists. It's kind of a proactive measure, understandable in a way — but it is still offensive to millions of Americans who honestly disagree with the president on policy and could care less what color his skin happens to be.

Fortunately, no one has taken a shot at Obama yet — and, hopefully, no one will.

Presidential security has improved a lot since the last time someone shot a president, even more since someone was successful in killing a president. But it still could happen. It has happened four times in our history. If the methodology for protecting a president is better now than it was, so too is the technology that can be used to attack a president.

Most presidents have accepted the fact that they could easily be killed if someone is, as Lincoln put it, willing to trade his life for the president's. If someone is that determined, it seems unlikely that anything can stop him.

I don't know if the first black president will be assassinated — or re–elected. I was not born with the ability to see the future.

I do know that the only trait that all great leaders share is confidence. They practically exude confidence — in America, in themselves and in the people. Without that, others won't follow — or, at least, they won't follow for long.

When a president takes the oath of office, no one truly knows what the fate of his presidency will be. Fifty years ago, no one knew that John F. Kennedy would die in a Dallas motorcade before the voters could give his presidency a thumb's up or a thumb's down. One hundred and fifty years ago, no one knew that Abraham Lincoln would preside over a bloody civil war — and be killed a few days after its conclusion.

And 30 years ago, no one knew that the oldest man ever elected president would survive not one but two terms in office — as well as an assassination attempt.

History is full of contradictions, full of twists and turns. A president must be confident and steadfast, sure that the course he is following is correct; the people always seem to sense uncertainty and hesitance.

I'm glad Giffords is recovering so well.

And I would urge the president and those who are embarking on campaigns to replace him to avoid incendiary arguments.

The nation was not served by the introduction of unwarranted charges and counter–charges about patriotism in 2004, and it will not be served by the introduction of unwarranted charges and counter–charges about racial attitudes in 2012.

Let's talk about the issues and the nation's problems in 2012.

No matter what else happens.

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