20 Years Later in Oklahoma City

Reflections on a President’s Message

Twenty years to the hour after a Rider truck bomb destroyed the federal office building there, a delegation led by former President Bill Clinton gathered in Oklahoma City to remember.

On, April 19, 1995, I had just left my job in the Clinton administration. It was a glorious spring morning, when that bomb went off at the Alfred P. Murrah building.

I did not know, at that moment, what a big part of my professional life that event would become — the first major news story of my journalism career; the many months I would spend covering the trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, and the execution of McVeigh another three years after that. All I knew in April 1995 was that 168 people were dead,nineteen of them children. I absorbed the horrific images as we all did. And I knew, of course, that this was the worst act of terrorism on United States soil, ever.

President Clinton was no longer my boss. So along with my fellow Americans, I simply listened to our president as he stepped to the microphone, in an effort to bring the nation together — to lead.

We came together as a nation around that tragedy, as we do around few things. Before the arrests, before the trials, before conspiracy theories, we focused on the victims, their families and Oklahoma City.

I often think about Clinton’s words on that day. Every president has that first moment of national tragedy — that first opportunity to remind us who and what we are as a nation. If course, for George W. Bush it was 9/11. I will never forget a dignified and composed President Reagan announcing the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in the 1980s. And of course, there is FDR’s famous Pearl Harbor speech. These are moments that define a presidency. More importantly, they define our country.

Bill Clinton was (and still is) famous for long speeches. But he kept his speech following the Oklahoma City bombing exceptionally short. That would be the first lesson for any president in a moment of crisis. Obama Keep it short. Second, don’t make it about politics. Whether or not the crisis is rooted in politics a leader in a moment of crisis needs focus on the victims — those lives lost, and the survivors.

“Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear. When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life,” Clinton said, before invoking St. Paul. “Let us not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

At the same time, if there is a can subtly a spirit of divisiveness and fear that is pervasive in the body politic and which sparked the crisis, a leader can subtly acknowledge that. In 1995, Bill Clinton gently helped the nation turn the corner to a better place.

Today, Clinton again struck exactly the right note for Ok City and the rest of us:

“When you strip away all the little things that divide us, it is important to remember how tied we are and how much all Americans owe to Oklahoma City,” he said, recalling the courage of families and local officials who chose to rebuild their lives and their city. “You chose farsighted love over blind hatred.”