WASHINGTON – The White House turned over the president’s weekly address to a stand-in Saturday, airing on its website gripping video of Francine Wheeler talking about the life and death of her 6-year-old son, Ben, shot in his classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
“Sometimes, I close my eyes and all I can remember is that awful day waiting at the Sandy Hook Volunteer Firehouse for the boy who would never come home,” Wheeler says, struggling to talk without sobbing as her husband sits next to her, silent, clutching a tissue.
“We have to convince the Senate to come together and pass common-sense gun responsibility reforms that will make our communities safer and prevent more tragedies like the one we never thought would happen to us,” Wheeler says.
The video ended a week in which gun control advocates unabashedly used the emotional power of Sandy Hook and other shootings to try to prod lawmakers toward action on new gun control measures.
Parents of the dead children marched through Capitol Hill, meeting with lawmakers one by one – telling their stories, carrying photographs and wearing their signature green ribbons, reprising a strategy that worked weeks ago when they won support in Connecticut for stricter state gun provisions.
President Barack Obama was at their side as a dozen Sandy Hook family members flew from Connecticut to Washington aboard Air Force One on Monday. He and Vice President Joe Biden and others at the White House talked about gun violence all week. In an emotional address in her hometown of Chicago, Michelle Obama joined in, speaking wrenchingly about the shooting death of a local teenager from a school blocks from the Obama home. “I was her,” she said.
The emphasis on grief and the grieving was no accident. Backers of new gun measures acknowledge that defeating the powerful gun rights lobby will take more than just political skill. It will require the momentum of emotion.
That represents a departure from past practice for Obama, prone to rational arguments rather than emotional ones. But, advisers say, the president has decided to be open about his personal response to the shootings of 20 children and six educators last December – and to encourage others to do the same.
“Being in his second term has something to do with it,” said Mike Strautmanis, an Obama friend who worked for years on the White House staff before his recent departure. “He’s past having to worry about the political peril.”
“Sandy Hook was a searing experience for him,” Strautmanis added. “And he’s willing to put political capital into this.”
Gun rights supporters privately say they see the efforts as exploitative of Sandy Hook and other tragedies. But, as survivors made their rounds on Capitol Hill, no one would say that openly.
Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska, a Republican who did not meet with the survivors, called the Sandy Hook shooting “as tragic as tragic is,” but said the proposals would have done nothing to prevent it.
“This is really a story about an individual who was severely mentally ill who for whatever reason did not get the help that he needed,” he said. “This has been a political response to a very tragic situation.”
Given Obama’s reputation for emotional detachment, the tone struck by his administration stood out from all past legislative efforts.
While the spotlight he provided didn’t hurt, the Sandy Hook families carried substantial political power on their own.
When they met with Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat and staunch gun rights supporter, they impressed him with a savvy approach.
“They didn’t come in and say: ‘Our little babies got slaughtered. I wish you would ban everything,’ ” Manchin said. “You would think that would be their mentality. They came in and said, ‘Listen, we’re Second Amendment people. We understand gun rights and law-abiding citizens.’ ”
They told Manchin they supported his efforts, ultimately successful, to find common ground with some Republicans on an amendment to expand background checks to cover most private transactions, including those at gun shows and on the Internet.
“They said to me, ‘We know our babies couldn’t have been spared by this legislation.’ … Their concern was, maybe you can spare one family what we’ve gone through,” Manchin recalled. “That’s the most unselfish presentation I’ve ever heard in my life. It just brought me to my knees.”
Some of the families’ activities, like the meetings with Manchin and other lawmakers, went on with no fanfare or advance notice. Others were intentionally conspicuous.
The White House doesn’t apologize for employing a strategy weighted with emotion.
“Nobody has a more important or powerful perspective on the issue than the families who have lost loved ones because of the scourge of gun violence,” Obama spokesman Jay Carney said.
With that in mind, Obama invited Wheeler, the mother of the Newtown victim, to come to the White House library to tape the Saturday address. She is the only person besides the vice president to be asked to substitute for him.
“I’ve heard people say that the tidal wave of anguish our country felt on 12/14 has receded,” Wheeler says in her address, written in collaboration with her husband, David. “But not for us. To us, it feels as if it happened just yesterday. … Please help us do something before our tragedy becomes your tragedy.”