Julius Lester: A president’s empathy on full display at Sandy Hook 

  • On Dec. 16, 2012, two days after the shootings at Newtown, President Obama met with victims’ families, including the siblings and cousins of Emilie Parker, one of the 20 children who died that day. PETE SOUZA / WIKIMEDIA

Published: 4/22/2016 8:30:42 AM


Circulating quietly on the Internet is a story about President Obama in the aftermath of the massacre that occurred at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, 2012, when 20 children and six adults were murdered. It is a story that truly reveals the president’s character and spiritual integrity. It is taken from “The President’s Devotional” by Joshua DuBois, who was the head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

President Obama was to go to Newtown for a memorial service at the high school on Dec. 16 and said that he also wanted to meet with the families of the victims.

DuBois writes: “We prepared seven or eight classrooms for the families of the slain children and teachers, two or three families to a classroom, placing water and tissues and snacks in each one. Honestly, we didn’t know how to prepare; it was the best we could think of.”

When the president arrived, DuBois briefed him: “Two families per classroom. The first is … and their child was … The second is … and their child was … We’ll tell you the rest as you go.”

“The president took a deep breath and steeled himself, and went into the first classroom. Person after person received an engulfing hug from our commander-in-chief. He’d say, ‘Tell me about your son. Tell me about your daughter,’ and then hold pictures of the lost beloved as their parents described their favorite foods, television shows, and the sound of their laughter. For the younger siblings of those who had passed away -- many of them two, three, or four years old, too young to understand it all -- the president would grab them and toss them, laughing up into the air, and then hand them a box of White House M&M’s, which were always kept close at hand. In each room, I saw his eyes water, but he did not break.

“And the entire scene would repeat -- for hours. Over and over and over again, through well over a hundred relatives of the fallen, each one equally broken, wrecked by the loss. After each classroom we would go back into those fluorescent hallways and walk through the names of the coming families, and then the president would dive back in …. We spent what felt like a lifetime in those classrooms, and every single person received the same tender treatment. The same hugs. The same looks, directly in their eyes. The same sincere offer of support and prayer.

“... I remember worrying about the toll it was taking on him. And of course, even a president’s comfort was woefully inadequate for these families in the face of this particularly unspeakable loss. But it became some small measure of love, on a weekend when evil reigned.”

As we enter the final months of Obama’s presidency, more and more people are beginning to realize that this was a good and decent man whose presidency was met, not with respectful and reasoned opposition but with open and unwavering hostility.

Imagine what a man with the compassion and heart shown by President Obama at Newtown could have done for the nation if the opposition had not put their ideology above the ideals of a democracy.

Julius Lester is a writer and photographer and professor emeritus in the Department of Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts. He lives in Belchertown.

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