WASHINGTON — On the morning of December 14, 2012, as news trickled in painfully slowly about a shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut, aides gathered in the White House to chart out a response.
Moments of national crises require, at a basic political level, a prompt reaction, if only to demonstrate that the situation is being dealt with. And the president and his aides knew he’d have to deliver remarks as reports from Sandy Hook Elementary School grew worse.
President Barack Obama’s speechwriter, Jon Favreau, came in at one point to hand Obama the draft of the speech he’d deliver to press corps waiting in the nearby James Brady Briefing Room, named after Ronald Reagan’s press secretary who had himself been a victim of gun violence.
“He barely looked up from his desk and couldn’t even look at me because there were tears in his eyes,” Favreau recalled on Friday.
Twenty kids were dead along with six educators in Newtown, Connecticut. And even though the president occupied the most powerful political perch in the country, there was a sense of helplessness in the room. After talking with Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy and FBI Director Robert Mueller, a draft was finalized. Obama walked into the briefing room at 3:15 p.m.
“I know there is not a parent in America who doesn’t feel the same overwhelming grief that I do,” he said, speaking in measured tones, staring down carefully to the written text and pausing occasionally to gather himself and wipe tears from his eyes.
“Our hearts are broken today.”
This was the emotional nadir of Obama’s presidency. Later, he would email his longtime aide David Axelrod to say that it had been the first time where he had cried in the Oval Office.
Though no incident would match the despair of Newtown, this wouldn’t be the last time Obama would have to address a nation grappling with wanton gun violence. On Thursday, the president made yet another appearance at the briefing room to respond to a mass killing, this time the shooting of nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. By the count of Mark Knoller, the unofficial presidential data keeper at CBS Radio News, it was the 14th time in his presidency that has been placed in such a circumstance.
“At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,” Obama said Thursday. “It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it.”
Those who have worked at the White House describe these moments as excruciatingly awful. At first, it is a torturous scramble for news from any source available, whether it be television, local officials or law enforcement.
“You just hope they have specific information that is less devastating,” one former White House official put it. Once enough information is accumulated, it falls on someone to brief the president, which the official described as “probably the hardest thing you can do in the White House on any given day.” (That particular task during Newtown fell on John Brennan, then the Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism and now the director of the CIA).
The primary job for the president and his aides is to ensure that no faulty information gets made public and that all the right political levers are pulled. Throughout it all, there is a tremendous tug and pull taking place: the desire to react viscerally to the events unfolding bumps up against the demand to operate conservatively and with precision.
“It is a fog,” said Ben LaBolt, Obama’s former press hand on gun policy, among other issues, and the press secretary of his 2012 campaign. “You are trying to figure out the facts and the motive and how many people were injured.”
For those who have to go before the cameras, the pressure to maintain this balance can be overwhelming. Obama’s former press secretary, Jay Carney, said that the briefing he gave after Newtown was the hardest of his tenure.
“People think it was the one after Benghazi but it is not even close,” he said.
Often, it is the president who bears this burden first. His job is to not just relay what is being done to respond to the violence but to offer a certain level of empathy, grief and even green shoots of hope for those affected or those just watching.
“The role of the president is many, but one is ministerial in times like this,” said Axelrod. “Obviously you want to make sure that everything that should be done is being done and in cases like this they almost certainly are. The main function is to come out and articulate the nation’s grief.”
As the cases of gun-related mass killings have piled up during his time in office, Obama’s approach to these moments has become — disturbing as it may be to acknowledge — more practiced; the routine more familiar.
“There is no question that, yeah, he has done this so many times that I don’t think that when it comes to figuring out the right tone it is very complicated,” said Carney.
You can see as much in watching Obama’s responses to instances of gun violence through the years. The dry recounting of the events and calls for reflection and prayer that he displayed early in his administration have become peppered, increasingly, with visible emotions and calls for actions. More recently, they’ve featured laments, almost angry at times, that no action is taking place.
“He didn’t become numb to it,” said Favreau. “He became frustrated.”
For Favreau, one memorable tipping point was the shooting of moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado, in July 2012. He recalled being with the president on a campaign swing at the time that the news broke.
“You don’t have kids yet but being a parent is like having your heart outside of your body all the time,” the president told him, Favreau recalled. He was cribbing from someone else. But also reacting to just how little information was known in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, when parents were wondering if their child was among the 12 killed and 70 injured by the shooter, James Holmes.
Six months later, Newtown happened. Obama recited that line in the speech he delivered at the vigil.
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