The Oklahoma City Bombing and Bill Clinton's Eulogy to Bombing Victims
On Wednesday, April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb at the base of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. For the 168 individuals who lost their lives and the countless more injured and affected by the tragedy, otherwise going about their daily business, the bombing represented one of the most devastating acts of domestic terrorism. Roughly 90 minutes after the bombing, a state trooper arrested McVeigh on weapons charges and he was linked to the bombing the day after. With justice seemingly obtained, the question that then remained by that weekend’s memorial service was not “Who?” but rather “Why?” As a result, President Bill Clinton found himself at the crossroads of tragedy and recovery when he took the podium at the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial Prayer Service, a mere four days after the bombing, as the eyes of victims, families, and the nation looked to their leader to deliver a poignant eulogy and offer words of comfort in a time of despair. Addressing those in attendance as well as the American people via broadcast, President Clinton acknowledged their terrible grief but asked them to consider the future, to begin the path to recovery. In his “Eulogy for Bombing Victims,” Clinton demonstrates great rhetorical prowess, comforting his audience in a time of crisis, and elevating his speech to an example of great presidential oration. On that Sunday, April 23, 1995, Clinton effectively addressed the congregation and nation, building trust by identifying with the average Oklahoman and acknowledging their grief before compelling them to begin the healing process and recover from their anguish.
Given the nature of his office, Clinton’s presence at the memorial service could have easily appeared as a bid for approval, stealing focus from the events of the tragedy in favor of solidifying his own popularity rating. With this in mind, Clinton crafts his address to sidestep this possibility by aligning himself with the Oklahoman people, contributing to his own ethos by establishing a common ground with his audience and focusing on the tragedy at hand. In doing so, Clinton lends acceptability to his later message of recovery; his audience is more likely to feel that moving forward in the face of tragedy is a good idea if they believe that Clinton shares their values and, more importantly, their grief.
Clinton begins the process of relating to the Oklahoman people by appealing to patriotism, affirming that he and the American people are united in support. This appeal starts with the very first sentence of the speech, in which he thanks everyone gathered as “our fellow Americans” (1). The use of patriotic and inclusive language at the beginning of the speech sets the course for Clinton to work with the idea that he and the American public are united in grief and recovery with the citizens of Oklahoma City, a course that Clinton immediately emphasizes by establishing himself as a spokesperson for the American people. Having tied himself to patriotism, Clinton then moves to include the American people in the Oklahoman’s grief and dedicates the entire third paragraph of his speech to using overwhelmingly inclusive language to do so. With inclusive phrases such as “our nation joins with you,” “we share,” and “work hand in hand with you,” Clinton demonstrates that Americans are unified with the citizens of Oklahoma City, both in grief and in the eventual process of recovery (2). Clinton wastes no time in emphasizing that just as Oklahomans are Americans, Americans too are Oklahomans and will come to the aid of a city in despair.
Having established common ground between Americans and the citizens of Oklahoma City through inclusive language, Clinton takes his approach a step further and personally establishes himself as a neighbor of the citizens of Oklahoma City. By personally designating himself as their neighbor, Clinton increases the congregation’s ability to relate to him, further emphasizing what he has in common with the Oklahoman people. Despite acknowledging his role as spokesperson for the American public in the second paragraph, Clinton immediately counters this with the statement: “But I have to tell you that Hillary and I also come as parents, as husband and wife, as people who were your neighbors for some of the best years of our lives” (3). This simple contradiction gives Clinton the ability to illustrate him and his wife not as the President and First Lady, but instead as ordinary individuals. By emphasizing that he and Hillary embody many of the typical roles that people in the audience hold−parents, spouses, neighbors−Clinton is better able to take on a relatable persona and connect himself to the citizens of Oklahoma City, whom he later names as holding these same roles (4). Having established himself as a figurative neighbor through sharing similar community roles, Clinton further extends his connection with the congregation by referencing his term as Governor of neighboring Arkansas. In referring to his time as Governor as “some of the best years of our lives,” Clinton acknowledges that he is coming home to address his neighbors, thereby separating the Presidency from his speech and substituting the notion of a concerned neighbor, rushing home to an old and beloved neighborhood. Giving the audience the idea that he is simply a concerned neighbor, Clinton effectively removes the divide caused by his office and demonstrates his solidarity with the Oklahoman People.
With Clinton’s reputation as a neighbor established, he moves to further gain the trust of the Oklahoman people by acknowledging his personal faith. Given Oklahoma’s position as a state on the Bible belt, Clinton is aware that the individuals who have gathered to hear him speak are likely turning to their religion for support in a time of crisis. In addition, Clinton addresses the congregation at a prayer service on a Sunday that many would otherwise spend in church; by emphasizing religion in his speech, Clinton builds his own ethos and increases his ability to relate to his audience. Out of character for a sitting President but in keeping with maintaining a strong relationship with his audience, Clinton makes multiple overt references to religion and his own faith throughout his speech. His references start early on by claiming that it “is God’s work” to undo the pain that “families...have suffered” (5). Despite occurring early on in Clinton’s speech, this deference to God serves as an indication of what lies ahead, as Clinton heavily utilizes religion to comfort his audience. He ensures the Oklahomans “that the God of comfort is also the God of righteousness,” quoting Proverbs 11:29 to give hope to the idea that their grief will pass (11). Clinton follows this passage by quoting St. Paul to encourage the Oklahomans to begin the process of rebuilding from this tragedy, stating, “in the face of death, let us honor life” (12). Knowing the importance of religion to his audience, Clinton takes care to include several references to religion to demonstrate his personal faith and strengthen his relationship with the audience, while also acknowledging their current source of support: God and faith. Having established a relationship with his audience by emphasizing his down to earth persona and downplaying his vaulted role while ensuring he is a man of faith, Clinton has ensured that the Oklahoman people trust him and are amenable to the main objective of his speech.
Their trust in hand, Clinton moves from increasing ethos to making a major concession to those gathered at the prayer service. Simply put, Clinton does not sidestep the main issue: the Oklahoman people are in a state of great anguish. Clinton validates this grief, conceding that the bombing was a tragic event and acknowledging their sorrow, preventing resentment from the audience (5). Although he provides validation to their grief, Clinton is careful to distinguish his validation of their grief from an encouragement of further sorrow; immediately following this paragraph, he acknowledges that words have little meaning in the face of tragedy but that they can begin the process to recovery, stating “our words seem small….but I found a few I wanted to share.” These words signal Clinton’s deference to a letter he recently received from “a young widow and a mother of three” from the Lockerbie Bombing, 7 years prior (6). Relaying the widow’s message, Clinton recites, “The anger you feel is valid….the hurt you feel must not be allowed to turn into hate… The loss you feel must not paralyze your own lives….thus ensuring [your loved ones] did not die in vain” (7). By using the words of a widow of the Lockerbie Bombing, Clinton avoids being the bearer of bitter truths, knowing that he cannot adequately empathize with the Oklahomans’ situation. He sidesteps resentment from the audience by presenting the widow’s point because she too has been wracked with similar grief. In addition, providing this quote allows Clinton to transition from conceding the validity of grief to what will eventually form his call for recovery.
Clinton deeply emphasizes the Oklahomans’ and the widow’s shared grief with his succinct summarization following the quote: “Wise words from one who also knows” (8). He points to their shared situation as a way of increasing the widow’s ethos and by extension, his own. Moving forward, Clinton echoes the woman’s pleas for working through sorrow by pledging steadfast support through the use of antithesis: “you have lost too much, but you not lost everything.” Although Clinton admits their loss is great, he speaks on what the Oklahomans have not lost, committing the nation to the healing process: “we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes” (9). In using the widow’s words, Clinton deftly steers the audience through their grief to encourage them to move beyond the tragedy.
Clinton moves to the pivotal message of his speech: the Oklahoman people must find a way to come to terms with their grief and prevail over this horrific event. Clinton refocuses the target of the speech at this time, beginning his shift by addressing America as a whole (11). Having broadened the message that he’s about to give to the audience, Clinton then begins to equate the future with children, an incredibly effective and universal pathetic appeal. The theme of children pervades the last few paragraphs, revealing Clinton’s motives. Urging the audience to put aside their grief to find solace and strength for the sake of their children, Clinton states: “Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear” (12). Clinton helps the audience to realize the importance of recovering from this tragedy by reframing it around the children present. Further, this plea is also kairotically effective due to the demographics of the victims−of the 168 dead, 19 were children from a daycare facility. By gently connecting his speech to their memories and to the children still alive, Clinton gives the audience the ability to consider the future in terms of their children to inform the audience why it is imperative that they begin the process of letting go of their grief.
Clinton concludes with a story of a little girl who suggested planting a dogwood tree at the White House in the deceased children’s honor (13). The anecdote allows Clinton to shift his strategy from using children as a lens into the future to using trees to symbolize slow regrowth. Clinton discusses the tree’s “deep, enduring roots” and notes “[that] a tree takes a long time to grow” (13, 14). In using such language, Clinton acknowledges the lasting mark that the tragedy has left on Oklahoma City and the time required to recover, while also referencing The Survivor Tree, a symbol of the Oklahoma City Bombing and its aftermath. The Survivor Tree, an American Elm that previously resided in the building’s parking lot, survived the blast and subsequent attempts to cut it down during the evidence recovery process and has endured and blossomed into a “tribute to renewal and rebirth” (“Survivor Tree”). Coupled with the religious undertones of the dogwood tree, believed to be the material of the crucifix, Clinton’s use of tree related language proves to be a very effective appeal. Clinton uses the tree planted at the White House to connect the pious audience to their own resilient tree, The Survivor Tree, a demonstration of triumph over tragedy, in hopes of inspiring the audience to recover.
Understanding that the citizens of Oklahoma City have faced a great tragedy, Clinton indicates that the process to recovery is only starting and will take many years. Paralleling the growth of a tree with grief, Clinton acknowledges the time recovery will take in his final few sentences: “wounds take a long time to heal” (14). Despite this delay, Clinton implores the audience to rise above their grief with his terse statement: “But we must begin” (14). His use of short sentences in his final paragraph increases the importance and finality of his message, compelling the audience to look to the future as he states that the victims’ “legacy must be our lives” (14). Concluding his speech, Clinton seamlessly transitions from using children to point to the future, to using trees to point to rebirth, linking his own remembrance at the White House to an enduring symbol of survivorship in the face of tragedy.
In a time of great despair, President Clinton rose to the occasion and comforted a city and nation in grief. Understanding the context of the situation to tailor his speech towards a call for recovery and not justice, Clinton gained the trust of his audience by diminishing his reputation as President in favor of emphasizing his ties to the Oklahoman people. Skillfully ensuring that his audience would accept his message of recovery, Clinton recognized his shortcomings as a speaker and substituted the words of a widow who could properly empathize with the Oklahomans. Clinton concludes his speech by looking to the future, using appeals accessible to the Oklahoman people by relating to religion, their children, and a symbol of the recovery process, The Survivor Tree. Adeptly crafting his speech, Clinton delivers a moving eulogy while providing guidance to a city in need, ensuring the Oklahomans that relief is ahead.
Clinton, Bill. “Eulogy for Bombing Victims.” Oklahoma City. 23 Apr. 1995. Address.
“Survivor Tree: Witness to Tragedy, Symbol of Strength.” Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. 2011. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.