Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Shared grief trumps politics

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood silently as caskets containing the bodies of four diplomatic personnel killed by a Libyan mob were unloaded from the military transport that brought them home last week. 

Holding high office means privilege and perks but carries costs brought into stark relief by moments like this. Obama and Clinton clearly know Libya is one of the very unstable, dangerous places in the world, but they had to send American representatives there. Standing before the caskets, both must have wondered, at least for a moment, whether they had made the right decision.

“The flag they served under now carries them home. May God bless the memories of these men who laid down their lives for us all,” the president said as he concluded his remarks and stepped back.

Then came a brief gesture that was not scripted, not part of the official duties. Clinton reached out, just for a second, and squeezed the president’s hand in a gesture of shared grief and support.

These two strong figures, once bitter political opponents, were now bearing together the awesome weight of public office as they saw these men off to their final resting places.

Neither Clinton nor Obama are above playing politics. Campaigning is a winner-take-all proposition, and there have been hard feelings between the Clinton and Obama teams. But in this moment, playing politics would be left for others. In this moment, the loss was personal, not just official. In this moment, the costs of choosing public service were clear, marked by both flag-draped caskets and a simple human gesture.

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