His Birmingham Moment?

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It took a traumatic turn of events in Alabama to show John F. Kennedy that he had to confront the issue of civil rights. The Newtown massacre may be a precipitating event for Barack Obama.

Barack Obama’s pitch-perfect public statements on the Sandy Hook shootings summed up the grief and shock that even the most distant observer—and certainly every parent—must feel about last Friday’s unspeakable events. But I think I detected an even more personal elegiac note: regret that he himself has not done more to grapple with the issue of guns.

“Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?” the president asked in Newtown, Connecticut, on Sunday. “I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.”

So I can’t help wondering if the bullets of Sandy Hook Elementary will be for Obama what the snarling dogs and high-pressure fire hoses of Birmingham, Alabama, were for John F. Kennedy in 1963: the human tragedy that will force him to take a political risk, simply because it is right.


Not that Obama has lacked political courage or been averse to all risk. Overhauling health care was no walk in the park, and he paid a big price for his efforts. But ever since Bill Clinton lost Democratic control of Congress—and many members lost their seats—in the wake of the passage of the assault-weapons ban in 1994, Democrats, especially the pragmatic variety, of which Obama is certainly one, have been extremely wary of sitting on that hot stove a second time. As a reporter for The New York Times, I covered the passage of the 1994 ban and lived to see some of its results. When Bill Clinton took his vacation in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in 1995, I spent many hours covering him—and many more just hiking and enjoying one of the nation’s great national parks. When, by chance, in the Grand Teton National Park visitors’ center I came across my old congressman and fellow Chinese-laundry patron from Brooklyn, Chuck Schumer, now a senator, I was stunned to find him sporting a three- or four-day growth of beard. I asked if he’d been sitting shiva. He replied that, no, F.B.I. director Louis Freeh had told him he was a marked man as one of the proponents of the bill, and so he’d sprouted some cover, just in case. CONTINUE READING THIS ARTICLE


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