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From race relations to gun violence, presidents often seek solutions after tragedies


There’s been some criticism from the right of President Barack Obama wanting to push for more gun control, post-Newtown.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., on Wednesday for example, accused the president of using the Newtown families as “props.” 

But history shows that, following speeches by presidents in the last half century meant to console, they often do, in fact, seek policy solutions or fixes -- from Lyndon B. Johnson trying to figure out the root causes of violence in America after Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination to Ronald Reagan trying to hold off cuts to the space program after the Challenger explosion to Bill Clinton seeking stronger abilities to fight domestic terrorism after Oklahoma City to George W. Bush on mental illness and guns.

A president seeking solutions is understandable. He’s the nation’s leader, and when a leader is presented with a problem, they want to solve them. But, of course, they do not always get their way and hampered by the political system, do not nearly go far enough for many issue advocates.

"Presidents are expected to be central in national tragedies these days, especially since Reagan and the Challenger," said Michael Beschloss, the historian and NBC News contributor.

That was not always the case, certainly not "anywhere near this degree."

In 1963, for example, the U.S.S. Thresher, a nuclear submarine, sank off the coast of Cape Cod and 129 people died. President John F. Kennedy issued a statement through the White House.

"Nothing more was expected," Beschloss said.

In 1967, when the first Apollo crew died on the launch pad, Johnson went to the funeral, but there was no big speech meant to console.

"Americans would be shocked and outraged if a president were so quiescent about such matters nowadays," Beschloss added.

But presidents have in the last half century increasingly sought to not only speak to comfort the nation and victims affected, but also seek policy solutions.

Beschloss points out that Kennedy in 1963 pivoted off the Birmingham bombing that killed four little girls in a church to start putting the wheels in motion on the Civil Rights Act.

Johnson, after Selma in 1965, pushed for the Voting Rights Act, and, after the Martin Luther King Jr. and RFK assassinations to get gun control in 1968.

A brief history

Following the assassination of RFK, Johnson called for a national commission on violence and race.

“Violence may bring down the very best among us,” Johnson said. “And a nation that tolerates violence in any form cannot expect to be able to confine it to minor outbursts. For this reason, I am appointing with the recommendation of the leadership of the Congress … a commission of most distinguished Americans to immediately examine this tragic phenomenon.”

Johnson appointed a 13-member commission chaired by Dr. Milton Eisenhower, the ex-president’s brother, and was called the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. The report dealt with television and violence, racial inequalities, and the breakdown of social order.

Clinton sought more authority to fight domestic terrorism after Oklahoma City.

“I don't think we have to give up our liberties,” he said, per the New York Times, “but I do think we have to have more discipline. And we have to be willing to see serious threats to our liberties properly investigated.”

George W. Bush signed a law intended to strengthen the gun background check system, particularly with regard to mental health, post-Virginia Tech -- the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

It established “incentives and penalties to prod states to submit records of people legally barred under federal law from buying guns — including those who had been committed to mental institutions,” the L.A. Times wrote.

The L.A. Times noted, however: “that promise remains unfulfilled. More than half the states haven't provided mental health records to the federal database that gun dealers use to check on buyers. And the gap in dealing with the mentally ill is just one of myriad problems that have hampered background checks.”

After the Challenger explosion, Reagan tried to prevent cuts to the space program.

“He sought to pre-empt calls for cuts to the space program by tying it to the history of American exploration, calling the astronauts modern-day pioneers,” the New York Times wrote.

Notably for Obama, until Newtown, he had resisted calls for stricter gun laws, despite speeches after gun violence in Tucson and Aurora.

In Tucson, Obama said there would be a time and place for a policy discussion, but stressed, "At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized -- at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do -– it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”

Obama's evolution began, it appeared, at Aurora. 

"I hope that over the next several days, next several weeks, and next several months, we all reflect on how we can do something about some of the senseless violence that ends up marring this country," he said, "but also reflect on all the wonderful people who make this the greatest country on Earth."

And it came full at the Newtown memorial after he noted that this was the fourth such incident of his presidency. 

"We can’t tolerate this anymore," Obama said. "These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law -- no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society. But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this. If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that -- then surely we have an obligation to try. 

"In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens -- from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators -- in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.  Because what choice do we have?  We can’t accept events like this as routine.  Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?  Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?"

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