Boehner right to skip memorial service

Andrew Langer President, Institute for Liberty
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Since the moment that Jared Lee Loughner allegedly committed his heinous acts in Tucson, Arizona, the left has used the tragedy as an opportunity to bash the right. So it comes as no surprise that the left has attacked Speaker John Boehner’s decision to stay in Washington, D.C. during the memorial service for the victims of Loughner’s alleged insanity, and questioned Boehner’s commitment to unity and national healing. The truth is that Boehner’s commitment to unity is amply demonstrated by his decision to stay behind.

Boehner has made his position on the attacks clear: it was an affront to all. To all public servants, to all Americans. Not to either Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals. Everyone.

Boehner was faced with the choice of whether or not to attend the Tucson memorial service. He would have been criticized either way. The president effectively had no choice: he had to go. By going, Obama will be accused of using the tragedy for political gain. But the presidency comes with a gravitas all its own, something the speakership just doesn’t have. The president can be (and in many times ought to be) above politics, petty or otherwise. This is especially true in times of national tragedy—like when a madman attacks a crowd at a political event, killing many and injuring many more, including a sitting member of Congress. He attends as “healer-in-chief,” the person whose job it is to keep the nation together when there is a crisis. It is at these moments that partisan politics is transcended, and the president rises above his party.

The Speaker of the House is nearly always cast in a comparative or competitive light to the president—especially when the two leaders come from opposite parties. The second the speaker commits to being on the same program as the president, the comparisons in the popular media begin. The political cognoscenti chime in as well—and in this day and age, the blogosphere erupts.

Certainly this is the case when the speaker decides against going to an event—then the story becomes, “Why did the speaker snub the president? Why did he decide to go to a prayer service in D.C. instead?”

But that’s a story that is much less painful than the alternative: a series of stories that focus less on the memory of those who perished than on the comparative messages and personae of those who spoke at the memorial service. Political propriety (like whether or not anyone ought to turn down an invitation from the president to ride on Air Force One) must take a back seat to social sensitivity.

It is entirely appropriate for the president to attend and speak at a funeral for those killed in such an attack, and it is equally appropriate for the Speaker of the House to decline an invitation out of deference to the president and the memory of those who perished. By choosing to stay away, Boehner made the story not about himself but about those who perished.

Boehner ought to be quietly applauded — not criticized — for not going to Tucson.

Andrew Langer is the President of Institute for Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization.