Al Gore and George W. Bush debated three times during the 2000 presidential election, including a leadoff appearance at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
For all the thousands of words spoken during a collective 4
A year later, then-president George W. Bush was confronted with the 9/11 attacks, the worst case of terrorism in American history.
It underscored the fact that most of the time, a president is defined not by how he addresses the predictable issues that arise, but the uncertainties that confront him in the Oval Office.
There was a reminder of that this past week, as both President Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, were confronted with the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo. It was among the worst shootings in US history, with 70 people shot.
Obama had been thrust into the role of comforter-in-chief numerous times during his presidency, but many Americans had not seen Romney in that context before Friday.
The last time Massachusetts residents did, it was July 2006,when their then-governor marshaled his administration in the aftermath of a Big Dig tunnel ceiling collapse that sparked public concern about the safety of the massive highway project.
The response by Romney and his campaign staff on Friday was aimed at conveying steadiness amid uncertainty, sympathy amid public shock and grief.
And like Obama, Romney sought to express human emotion, something critics often say is lacking in the numbers-oriented former businessman.
It was telegraphed in a statement that the Romney campaign released almost simultaneously to the president’s, and at a campaign rally in Bow, N.H., that was quickly reconfigured into a somber tribute to the victims.
“I stand before you today not as a man running for office, but as a father and grandfather, a husband, an American,” Romney told about 200 silent listeners sitting in the incongruous setting of a lumberyard. “This is a time for each of us to look into our hearts and remember how much we love one another, and how much we love and how much we care for our great country. There’s so much love and goodness in the heart of America.”
Yet Romney also acknowledged that a country looks to its leaders not just for understanding, but inspiration and a sense of direction.
“Today we feel not only a sense of grief, but perhaps also of helplessness. But there is something we can do,” he said. “We can offer comfort to someone near us who is suffering or heavy-laden. And we can mourn with those who mourn in Colorado.”
In a political system riven by partisanship, during a campaign careening toward the negative even before hundreds of millions have been spent on competing attack ads, Romney sought to engender a moment of unity.
“The answer is that we can come together,” he said. “We will show our fellow citizens the good heart of the America we know and love.”
As with anything Obama or Romney does right now, a political calculus cannot be entirely dismissed.
Colorado is a swing state, and both candidates have been battling hard for its votes.
The president tried to show the full engagement of his administration, phoning Aurora officials from his limousine, receiving a briefing from FBI Director Robert Mueller in the Oval Office, and changing plans so he made the shooting the focus of the weekly radio address he recorded Friday afternoon.
In Romney’s case, he lamented that “Colorado lost youthful voices which would have brightened their homes, enriched their schools, and brought joy to their families.”
He also surely heartened evangelicals with his easy reference to the Scripture, quoting the Apostle Paul: “Blessed be God, who comforteth us in all our tribulations.”
But the overarching target was the broader electorate, which is now sizing him up as a potential leader.
“I think a lot of us were disappointed after waiting so long,” said Karen Cervantes of Lebanon, N.H., one of those who came to the lumberyard expecting an electrifying political speech. But “I think he did the appropriate thing.”