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For Obama, Charleston eulogy a moment to comfort a shocked nation

Clementa Pinckney was among those killed last week. Obama will deliver his eulogy today.
Clementa Pinckney was among those killed last week. Obama will deliver his eulogy today.
Published Jun. 26, 2015

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has delivered eulogies for elementary school students gunned down in a classroom, for soldiers felled at Fort Hood and for employees slain at Washington's Navy Yard.

His remarks today at a memorial service will hit even closer to home.

Obama will pay tribute in Charleston, S.C., to the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, pastor of a historic African-American church, who — along with eight black parishioners — was shot to death after Bible study in the church basement. That church, Obama has noted, was once burned to the ground because its worshipers worked to end slavery.

"This may be as consequential a speech as he'll ever give," said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., who was aboard a somber Air Force One as Obama flew to Arizona in 2011 to deliver remarks after a shopping mall shooting rampage that killed six and wounded 13, including former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. "America is going to want to hear from him."

Obama will have to do more than eulogize Pinckney.

National tragedies such as a racially charged massacre in a church require language that comforts a nation, celebrates those lost and provides a path forward.

"We look at the president as our national priest; in that role he must provide us with a eulogy that helps us work through the trauma," said David Frank, a rhetoric professor at the University of Oregon who has studied Obama's remarks after mass shootings. "It's addressed not only to the victims, but to the living, to help the nation think through what must be done the next day, the next year."

"He will be speaking to the nation," Clyburn said. "This is not just about Charleston."

Obama began working on the remarks early this week, along with lead speech writer Cody Keenan, who helped him with the Giffords speech.

Aides say Obama likes to write major sections of his speeches himself, adding personal flourishes — particular to eulogies.

He tweaked his well-received Arizona speech even after landing in the state, for example, inserting one of the speech's most dramatic lines backstage just minutes before delivery. He said he had just visited Giffords at the hospital and that she had "opened her eyes, so I can tell you she knows we are here."

Today's address at the College of Charleston's TD Arena will also be personal for Obama: He and first lady Michelle Obama became friendly with Pinckney, who was also a state senator, during Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. Their bond "was strong enough to endure all the way until today," White House spokesman Eric Schultz said.

Michelle Obama will accompany her husband to the service, along with Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill.

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Obama's remarks will focus on remembering the nine who died and "celebrating their lives," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

One likely broader theme will be race.

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