The shooting in Arizona shocked the U.S. into grief – and presented Sarah Palin with an immediate political problem: her now-notorious gunsight map.
Palin scrubbed the map from her Palin PAC website, and then issued the following statement on her Facebook page:
My sincere condolences are offered to the family of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims of today’s tragic shooting in Arizona. On behalf of Todd and my family, we all pray for the victims and their families, and for peace and justice.
Then, as Palin came under a barrage of criticism, her supporters stepped forward to offer defenses. The gunsights were not really gunsights. The criticism of Palin was unfair, even “obscene.”
And of course, they had a point. Obviously, Palin never intended to summon people to harm Representative Giffords. There was no evidence that the shooter was a Palin follower, and in short order it became evident that he was actuated by a serious mental illness. Whatever you think about Palin’s “don’t retreat, reload” rhetoric, it could not be blamed for this crime.
So – argument won?
Palin failed to appreciate the question being posed to her. That question was not: “Are you culpable for the shooting?” The question was: “Having put this unfortunate image on the record, can you respond to the shooting in a way that demonstrates your larger humanity? And possibly also your potential to serve as leader of the entire nation?”
Here it seems to me are the elements of such an answer.
1) Take the accusation seriously. That does not mean you accept the accusation, nor even that you explicitly acknowledge it. But understand why people – not all of them necessarily out to get you – might feel negatively about this past action in light of current events.
2) Express real grief and sincere compassion. “My condolences are offered” is not the language of someone whose heart is much troubled.
3) Be visible. They’re laying flowers at the congressional office of Gabrielle Giffords. Any reason you can’t join them?
4) Join the conversation. You have often complained about out-of-bounds personal comments directed toward you (eg, David Letterman’s). Now try to show toward others the same empathy that you demand from others. Innocent as you feel yourself to be, try to imagine how it must have felt to be Giffords during this past campaign season: guns showing up at her rallies, her offices vandalized, death threats – and your map as the finishing touch. Imagine how her family must feel. Speak to them.
5) Challenge your opponents. In the past hours, many people have cited President Obama’s (borrowed) line about bringing a knife to a gun fight. They have a point! At the same time as you publicly commit to raise your game, invite your political opponents to raise theirs. Instead of deflecting the blame, share it.
6) Raise the issue of mental health. Remember how you were going to be an advocate for children with special needs? Can’t more be done to intervene to help potentially dangerous schizophrenics – and to protect society from the risk of violence? (Read this by Dr. Sally Satel to start your thinking on the subject.) The best way to underscore that Loughner was not motivated by Tea Party ideology is to remind them of what did impel him.
7) Think what you would like – not your supporters – but your opponents to say about you. “She was tough, but never a hater.” “No matter how strongly she disagreed, she was always gracious.” “I might not agree with her answer, but I could see she had thought hard about it.” Then, having thought about it, go be that person.
Last: suppose you were president right now. The country would want you to say something about this terrible crime. What is that something? Say it now.
Of course, Palin has yet to give the answer called for by events. Instead, her rapid response operation has focused on pounding home the message that Palin is innocent, that she has been unfairly maligned by hostile critics. Which in this case happened to be a perfectly credible message. And also perfectly inadequate. It was about Palin, not about Giffords. It was defensive, not inspiring. And it was petty at a moment when Palin had been handed perhaps her last clear chance to show herself presidentially magnanimous.