Analysis: Obama Finds His Voice and the Nation's in Boston, 'We Will Run Again'

President Barack Obama speaks at the "Healing Our City: An Interfaith Service" at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. President Barack Obama speaks at the "Healing Our City: An Interfaith Service" at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. Susan Walsh/AP

It was a stunning moment as President Obama brought parishioners to their feet at a memorial service for those killed and wounded in the Boston Marathon bombing and vowed “we will run again.”

The interfaith service held at Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross became an emotional rallying point for the city, but it was also a moment for Obama to speak to the nation and strike a tone between remembrance and optimism, a call for justice and a call for compassion. Almost instantly, the talk seemed to rank among Obama’s best, and one written without his longtime chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau, who has left the White House, although it wouldn’t be surprising if Favreau, who attended college at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., lent a hand.

During a week where the capture of the perpetrators was trumpeted by some media outlets, only to be rescinded, and where the president saw a modest gun-control measure blocked from passage by the now endemic use of the filibuster, the talk in Boston allowed Obama to use the power of his office and oration to unite the country.

The talk was rich in adulation for Boston. Quoting the author and poet E.B. White, Obama noted that line that “Boston’s not a place ... but a state of grace.” The president studded his talk with local references--the “Sox,” the “T”--and made Boston America’s city.

“Boston invented America,” he said.

The tone stood in contrast to the once-common Republican dismissal of Democratic presidential aspirants--Ted Kennedy, Michael Dukakis, and John Kerry--as “Massachusetts liberals” and residents of “Taxachusetts.” In the 1988 presidential race, George H.W. Bush of Andover and Yale slammed Dukakis’s "Harvard Yard” politics. Just as 9/11 melted away any unfair derision of the American experience, the same was true today.

Obama made it personal, too. He noted that the city had welcomed him “as a young law student” as well as Michelle. He also made an oblique reference to his 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Obama noted that people couldn’t pronounce his name, but his oration was a springboard to his unlikely presidency. Chances are good that Thursday’s address will be on a par with that “One America” speech.

Quoting the Bible, Obama hewed to the metaphor of running, which wasn’t surprising given the target of Monday’s attacks. Despite the somewhat predictable choice of imagery, Obama nevertheless roused passions in the 157-year-old cathedral, proclaiming that “Scripture tell us to run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Vowing that next year’s marathon would be better than ever, Obama declared: “You will run again because that’s what the people of Boston do.”

He didn’t linger on the perpetrators of the “heinous act” that left three dead and scores injured. “Small, stunted individuals” is how he labeled them.

If the president’s words were powerful and even historic, the striking tableau of an African-American president and an African-American governor sharing a pew seemed remarkable given this liberal city’s recent history of racial strife, most notably the school-busing plan that roiled the city in the 1970s and accelerated white flight from public schools. Both Patrick and Obama, political allies, came to Boston from elsewhere--Hawaii in Obama’s case and Chicago in Patrick’s. Each was a scholarship kid at a private school, and each went to Harvard Law. Each won reelection. Former Gov. Mitt Romney, who Patrick succeeded and who Obama defeated, was there with other former governors and dignitaries.

Standing ovations are all but unheard of in religious interfaith services after a tragedy, but Obama peppered his talk with rousing applause lines, noting that the bombers “sought to intimidate us ... shake us from our values.... It should be pretty clear by now they picked the wrong city to do it.” 

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