He didn’t bawl. His voice only roughened for a moment, and he dabbed at a couple tears that straggled down his cheek.
As displays of emotion go, it wasn’t all that much. But it was, of course, more than enough.
Inevitably, President Barack Obama’s tears became the takeaway from last week’s White House speech on gun violence. They came as he recalled the 2012 massacre of six educators and 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
“Every time I think about those kids,” said the president, tears shining on his cheek, “it gets me mad.”
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One grows used to thinking of politics as a craft practiced mostly by people who are only technically human. One grows used to their cynical manipulations and insincere triangulations, to their poll-tested smiles, and focus-grouped quips.
Which is why this moment was arresting. The president wept, and it was a starkly human thing.
Or at least, that’s surely how most of us saw it. It is a sign of how angry and hateful our politics have become that some conservatives refused to accept the moment at face value.
“I would check that podium for a raw onion,” sneered Andrea Tantaros of Fox “News.”
“He’s putting something in his eyes to create the fascist tears,” wrote John Nolte of Breitbart.
“#Crocodile Tears” tweeted actor James Woods.
One hardly knows how to respond. There isn’t even anger. There is only embarrassment for them, only amazement that some people are so bad at being, well … people.
But the sense of disconnectedness, of the action being wholly at odds with some people’s interpretation thereof, went far beyond the president’s tears. To compare what Obama actually said as he seeks to rein in the nation’s runaway gun violence with the way it was afterward construed by his political opposites is to feel as if one has fallen down the rabbit hole into an alternate reality where people drink trees and smell music, and the idea that words have fixed meaning is about as real as the Tooth Fairy.
“I believe in the Second Amendment … that guarantees the right to bear arms,” said the president.
Which House Speaker Paul Ryan interpreted as: “From day one, the president has never respected the right to safe and legal gun ownership that our nation has valued since its founding.”
Obama took a handful of modest actions, such as issuing an executive order clarifying that anyone who makes a living selling guns is required to conduct background checks on buyers; hiring more personnel to process background checks; and pushing for improved gun safety technology and the tracking of stolen firearms.
Which Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump processed as: “Pretty soon you won’t be able to get guns.”
One nation, two realities, one of them populated by the National Rifle Association and its GOP henchmen, by extremists who don’t just own guns or like guns, but who sanctify and worship guns and so regard even the most humble effort to check their destructive power as blasphemy against their god.
In the other reality live the rest of us, heartsick and frustrated that our country has come to this: Mass shootings are commonplace, and we cannot muster the political will to do anything about it.
So nothing happens. Nothing changes. Bullets fly, the gun lobby prattles on, and in an endless loop we mourn mothers, fathers, sisters and sons in San Bernardino, Aurora, Fort Hood, Tucson, Charleston and, yes, Newtown, where 20 first-graders were gunned down, slaughtered.
And people are disbelieving that the president cried? It is not amazing that someone might ponder this carnage and want to weep.
No, what’s amazing is that some of us ponder it and do not.
Leonard Pitts Jr.: firstname.lastname@example.org