Barack Obama speaks at an interfaith memorial service for the fallen police officers and members of the Dallas community at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas on Tuesday.

Barack Obama speaks at an interfaith memorial service for the fallen police officers and members of the Dallas community at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas on Tuesday. Susan Walsh/AP

Obama: ‘We Are Not as Divided as We Seem’

The president, George W. Bush, and other leaders memorialized the officers killed in Dallas last week.

Two American presidents came together to mourn what happened in Dallas last week.

President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush appeared at a memorial service Tuesday for the five officers shot and killed while protecting demonstrators at a city protest. Obama’s remarks were the most effusive he’s given in this past, violent week. Just days ago, Obama addressed the nation about the shooting deaths of two black men by police officers. He was overseas at the NATO Summit when the shooting began in Dallas, and cut his visit short to come home for Tuesday’s services. 

In his remarks, delivered at the end of Tuesday’s ceremony, Obama said Americans’ “entire way of life … depends on the rule of law,” and that the officers killed last week “were upholding the constitutional rights of this country.” Even though some protesters were critical of police, “these men and this department did their jobs like the professionals that they were.”

The New York Times reported that Obama had “hop[ed] to find words that would not only console the officers’ grief-stricken families but also reassure a nation fearful that racial divisions are worsening” after last week. His eulogizing role isn’t anything new. As George Condon wrote in National Journal two years ago—before Obama sang “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, before he honored victims of the Navy Yard shooting in Washington, D.C.—the president’s public appearances in times of public sorrow are a “routine all too familiar” to Obama:

[His] time in office has been marked by an unusual number of deadly natural disasters and far too many funerals and memorial services after several mass shootings and one terrorist bombing. Starting with his trip to Beckley, West Virginia, April 25, 2010, to deliver the eulogy for 29 miners killed in a coal mine explosion, the president has made such somber treks far more often than he would like. He has viewed storm damage in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey and New York. He has gone to communities shaken by gun violence in Arizona, Texas, Colorado and Connecticut. And, most recently, he has prayed with the victims and survivors of the bomb attack in Massachusetts and industrial explosion in Texas. …

[I]n all cases, whether the deaths and destruction result from acts of God or the misdeeds of man, the nation expects its president to provide comfort and solace and to serve as the mourner-in-chief. They also hope that his words will somehow help them make sense of the event that has so disrupted their lives.

On Tuesday, Obama acknowledged the pain of the last week. “I know that Americans are struggling right now with what we've witnessed over the past week,” Obama said. “All that's left us wounded and angry and hurt. [That] the deepest fault lines of our democracy have suddenly been exposed, perhaps even widened.” Americans wonder if racial divides in America will be fixed, Obama said, as people “retreat to their respective corners” and as lines are drawn. “It's hard not to think sometimes that the center won't hold, and that things might get worse. I understand. I understand how Americans are feeling. But, Dallas, I'm here to say we must reject such despair. I'm here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem.”

As he traveled to mark one tragedy, the president remembered others, calling the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—the two men killed by police last week in Louisiana and Minnesota, respectively—from aboard Air Force One. Lawmakers joined him on the plane: Texas Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson and Marc Veasey, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill; Texas Senator John Cornyn; and Bush and First Lady Laura Bush attended the ceremony as well.

In a poignant speech, Bush, who makes his home in the Dallas area, called for understanding and unity among his countrymen. “At times, it seems like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates too quickly into dehumanization. Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions,” Bush said. But he has hope. “At our best, we practice empathy, imagining ourselves in the lives and circumstances of others. This is the bridge across our nation's deepest divisions. And it is not merely a matter of tolerance, but of learning from the struggles and stories of our fellow citizens and finding our better selves in the process.”