The morning after the explosion, the Texas sky turns gray and cold. Then the clouds open and pour rain down on the dead, the wounded and what’s left of the smoldering town of West.
The police finally announce that between five and 15 are dead and 160 have gone to hospitals. Even as the body count is released in Texas, a memorial unfolds in Boston for those slain earlier in this week’s bombing. And it is, after all, just a few short months after the horror of Newtown, Conn.
Of course, there will never be enough measured words from authorities, eloquence from politicians or tales of heroism and resiliency to make up for all that was lost in all these places and others in recent years. But it is hard not to notice that the country has entered a second full decade of hair-trigger uncertainty. It is equally hard not to notice that perhaps the Obama presidency will not be measured by his successes but by his solace; not the place in history a president wishes to occupy.
West, Texas, is a tiny town of fewer than 3,000 people; you can see the whole town, pretty much, from I-35. Until this week it was modestly famous as a place for great kolaches and a festival that celebrated the town’s Czech immigrant heritage. Indeed, there was no Czech pun the town could pass up. There is the Czech Stop and the motel, the Czech Inn. But there was nothing funny about death and devastation that visited Wednesday night in an explosion that was measured on a Richter scale at 2.1 in Amarillo — 400 miles away.
Sadly, this little corner of Texas has always had its share of April tragedies. Twenty years ago this week, the federal government’s disastrous raid on the Branch Davidian compound resulted in nearly 80 deaths in nearby Waco. A little farther south and a few years later, in May 1997 the F5 Jarrell Tornado literally wiped the subdivision of Double Creek Estates right off the map, taking with it 27 lives.
What happened to West may not have been as fatal but it is not any less cause for disbelief.
“This is just a small town,” says Joey Oliver, who is working the front desk at the Czech Inn. His long sigh says almost as much as his words: “It’s something we never expected to happen.”
Everyone must endure hardship and many must endure tragedy in life. And mass tragedy differs from private ones only in one sense: one is shared and the other must be endured alone. The president has already called the governor; the government machinery of disaster relief is cranking up again. I wonder if the president will visit West next. He has already had to visit so many places: Fort Hood, Tucson, Aurora, New Jersey, New York, Newtown, Boston. It is part of the symbolic duty of presidents, after all.
But he has precious few successes to show as president. One can blame the Republicans, the deficit or polarized politics but the point stands. And worse, the country he helps govern continues to be wracked by uncertainty, not merely economic or political. In January, a Gallup poll found that most people believed that taxes and crime would rise, economic difficulty would increase and American power would fall.
Of course, most things in life are far beyond our control. But in the public square, at least, fatalism should not creep into governing in an effort to stave off disaster and tragedy or recover from it. And yet, this president may wind up known more for consoling and mourning than anything else. It wouldn’t even be his fault. The country entered an era of tumult and uncertainty on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 — and well more than a decade later it has not climbed out of it. Millions remain out of work; millions have lost their homes.
The world’s most powerful nation dwells at the intersection of uncertainty and anxiety. Of course, the president would make the case that it could have been worse. Perhaps, though it is impossible to prove the negative. But at this rate, a snapshot of this era taken from the future may well show the images of fear and tragedy and a tall, lonesome looking president at memorials, hospital beds and gravesides.
Of course, one president’s legacy does not stack up to the fates of hundreds or thousands or hundreds of millions. And George Will once wrote that we don’t need a president to console us. It’s true, in a sense. We are not infants. Yet presidents are judged in history almost as much by how they made a country feel about itself as what they accomplished.
And with so few precious accomplishments in Washington and so many dark occasions such as the ones that visited Newtown, Boston and now, West, this president may best be remembered by how he led in these. It is probably not the legacy he would have wanted.
Richard Parker is a regular contributor to the Op-Ed section of The New York Times, the Columbia Journalism Review, The New Republic and McClatchy-Tribune. He lives in Austin, Texas.