They came to the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds by the thousands, just four days after a terrorist’s bomb ripped through a federal building in Downtown Oklahoma City.
This was April 23, 1995—not a pandemic with 100,000 dead, but 168 murdered—and I was there as a columnist to convey the news.
The Rev. Billy Graham spoke eloquently about the mysteries of God. “I’ve been asked why God allows it,” the pastor said. “I don’t know. ... I have to confess that I never fully understand, even for my own satisfaction. I have to accept that God is a God of love and mercy and compassion even in the midst of suffering.”
Then President Bill Clinton rose and spoke to grieving—and with him rose America.
I never cared much for Clinton the man. But Clinton the orator spoke with humility and grace. He leaned into a profound moment of national grief and drew us with him. He quoted Proverbs 11:29 and it fit the moment perfectly.
“To all my fellow Americans beyond this hall, I say, one thing we owe those who have sacrificed is the duty to purge ourselves of the dark forces which gave rise to this evil.
“They are forces that threaten our common peace, our freedom, our way of life. Let us teach our children that the God of comfort is also the God of righteousness: Those who trouble their own house will inherit the wind. Justice will prevail.”
Once, we called moments like this “being presidential.” It was what presidents did when we suffered war, attack, mass death. You might remember such times, though now it’s a thing of the past.
Here’s President Trump on the day we passed 100,000 dead from COVID-19: “The Radical Left Lamestream Media, together with their partner, the Do Nothing Democrats, are trying to spread a new narrative that President Trump was slow in reacting to COVID-19. Wrong, I was very fast, even doing the Ban on China long before anybody thought necessary!”
Lately, I’ve heard people detail what they’ve missed most during the pandemic. Some say dining out. Others talk about going to a bar or hanging out with friends. Me, I miss empathy and having a president who rises to the moment.
Like President Reagan after the Challenger exploded in 1986.
“I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen,” he told us. “It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.”
Like President Obama after a mass shooting in Tucson killed six and wounded 13.
“If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle. The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better.”
Like President George W. Bush through a bullhorn at Ground Zero after 9/11. “I can hear you,” he told workers searching the rubble. “The rest of the world hears you! And the people—and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”
Here’s Donald Trump, our 45th president, asked if he had a message for Americans who might be worried about the pandemic.
“I say that you’re a terrible reporter. That’s what I say. I think it’s a very nasty question.”
Actually, in our most tragic moments, it’s exactly the question every president should answer.