Nineteen people mowed down by a madman with a frighteningly lethal weapon. A vivacious young congresswoman fighting for her life in a Tucson, Ariz., hospital. And worst of all, a precipitous descent into a nasty, hasty and ill-considered tit for tat from opposite ends of the liberal-conservative continuum.
Into this calamitous downdraft stepped the president of the United States, one Barack Obama. Those of us who have observed with alarm this chief executive's frequent petulance, pettiness, political tone-deafness and partisan scorekeeping could be excused for wondering whether he could rise to the occasion and reverse the downward spiral at Wednesday's memorial service.
Unfortunately, the eddy of ugliness only intensified when the event immediately put on display more of the coarseness of today's culture, starting with the unseemly behavior of the 14,000 gathered in the University of Arizona's McKale Memorial Center. At an occasion one might expect to be characterized by solemnity, the crowd screamed like a cross between football rowdies and lovestruck teenyboppers at the entrance of the president and first lady Michelle Obama.
The throng continued to screech, whoop, call out and even whistle. At the end of a stirring rendition of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man." Throughout the Native American blessing. At the completion of the National Anthem. During the opening address of university President Robert Shelton. After aptly chosen Scripture readings by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder. And at every mention of their hometown and the university. At first, they dragged a moving memorial service down into a profoundly perplexing and perturbing pep rally.
Meanwhile, university professor Carlos Gonzalez's downright bizarre preamble and invocation -- which extended to every creature in Arizona, including the reptilian -- was a truly unfortunate reminder of our leadership's obsession with political correctness.
And no tour of the depths of contemporary American crudity would be complete without turning a somber memorial into a branding opportunity. "Together We Thrive: Tucson and America"? Please.
The good news was that after some four days -- and 44 minutes -- of the very worst of America, the nation did indeed benefit from the very best of its 44th head of state.
With a superbly crafted, flawlessly delivered and relentlessly inspiring address, the president managed to rise above the clownish comportment of his audience and restore an air of dignity to the occasion.
But beyond that, in recalling the lives and the final moments of the victims, Obama used their examples to call to the better angels of our national nature. How Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' "Congress on Your Corner" events were "an updated version of government of and by and for the people." How the late federal judge John Roll "embodied America's fidelity to the law." How murdered staffer Gabe Zimmerman "died doing what he loved -- talking with people and seeing how he could help." How Dorwin Stoddard's "final act of selflessness was to dive on top of his wife, sacrificing his life for hers."
But -- other than the dramatic, waterworks-inducing announcement that Giffords had just opened her eyes for the first time -- the president saved his best for last. Invoking Christina Green's innocent enthusiasm, he declared, "I want to live up to her expectations. ... I want America to be as good as she imagined it."
In the end, for those of us who pondered whether, at a time when the worst of America seemed to be overwhelming us, Obama could pour oil on the waters, rub salve on our wounded national spirit, and restore some semblance of unity amid the outrageous and childish public spitball tossing, we had our answer.
Yes, he could. And yes, he did.