President Obama’s speech at the Dallas police memorial service has already come in for criticism in these quarters, and I would not argue with a single point raised by Roger Clegg and Charles C. W. Cooke in their observations on the matter. Everyone knows the president has a talent for reading a speech from a teleprompter, even if his method of delivery – the head turns, the tilted chin, the changes in inflection – has long since grown predictable and tiresome.
I concur with Charles in his assessment that the president started off well, but one couldn’t escape the creeping fear that after the strong opening he would revert to his customary smug, lecturing tone. We didn’t have long to wait.
First, consider that the speech ran to more than 3,600 words, about 2,900 more than George W. Bush needed for his remarks. President Obama was reminiscent of Edward Everett, who at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery in 1863 spoke for more than two hours before Abraham Lincoln rose to speak for two minutes. Which speech is remembered today? What’s more, it was readily apparent that President Bush, a son of Texas and resident of Dallas, was speaking from his heart; for President Obama, it was just another speech.
And if it truly had been just another speech, at another time and in another venue, I would scarcely think to criticize it. But at that time and in that place, before the families of five slain police officers, he felt the need to invoke the names of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the two black men recently killed in controversial police shootings. One could almost sense the eye-rolling in the audience, certainly among the police officers.
If only that were the end of it. Like so many others have done, President Obama conflated the atrocity in Dallas with the deaths of Sterling and Castile, as if to say, “Yes, it was wrong what happened here in Dallas, but what happened in Louisiana and Minnesota was wrong, too.” What an insult that was to the memory of those five men.
There is much we do not know about Castile’s death, the investigation of which is still ongoing. But that didn’t prevent Mr. Obama from using it as a talking point. And as for Sterling’s death, what we can see in the videos taken by bystanders, most especially the second one, provides compelling evidence that the shooting was lawful. Sterling was reported to have threatened a man with a gun. When officers arrived, he failed to comply with their orders, struggled with them after being shot with a Taser and tackled, then attempted to draw a gun from his pocket. All of this can be seen or heard in the second video. That the president should continue to cite Sterling’s death as an example of police oppression should come as no surprise; he spoke of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in a similar context long after it was proven that the officer had acted lawfully.
In appearing at the Dallas memorial, the president had a chance to rise above cheap politics and deliver a speech that was consoling to the slain officers’ families and respectful to the officers’ assembled comrades. He failed.