Obama Visits Rep. Giffords Before Tucson Speech

People line up to get into a memorial service for the victims of Saturday's shootings at McKale Memorial Center on the University of Arizona campus Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011, in Tucson, Ariz. University of Arizona students and others made up a line several blocks long by midday Wednesday outside of the Tucson arena where President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
AP Photo
Updated at 8:13 p.m. ET

TUCSON, Ariz. - President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama vsited with families of the deceased in Saturday's shooting in Tucson before the memorial, called "Together We Thrive: Tucson and America," begins, said press secretary Robert Gibbs.

Also present were attorney general Eric Holder, Senators John McCain (R) and Jon Kyl (R) from Arizona, and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.)

President Barack Obama visited Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband in the ICU on the second floor of University Medical Center in Tucson. He stayed for with Giffords and her husband for a nine-minute visit, said press secretary Robert Gibbs in a statement. The doctor who led Mr. Obama through the hospital was Dr. Peter Rhee.

Mr. Obama stopped at the hospital before the memorial service in Tucson Wednesday for the victims of Saturday's shooting tragedy. University of Arizona students and others were lined up for several blocks at midday outside of the Tucson arena where Mr. Obama is scheduled to speak.

The Arizona Daily Star, a Tucson newspaper, reports that the number of people waiting in line to get into the McKale Center where the event is to take place has reached capacity. Overflow crowds will be redirected to Arizona Stadium.

Mr. Obama is expected to remember the six people killed Saturday in an assassination attempt against Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. The White House said Mr. Obama would meet privately with the victims' families before the service.

Gibbs said Mr. Obama's speech will last 16 to 18 minutes. "The President will devote a significant portion of his remarks to the memory of the victims," said Gibbs. "He'll also reflect on how all of us might best honor their memory in our own lives."

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"The president wanted to begin this solemn trip by stopping first at the hospital where Congresswoman Giffords and others continue to recuperate," Gibbs told reporters traveling with the president. Giffords was the target of the first assassination attempt on a member of Congress in decades.

Leading the nation in mourning, Mr. Obama flew to Arizona Wednesday to pay tribute to the six people killed in the weekend shootings and to the fighting spirit of wounded lawmaker Gabrielle Giffords, the target of the first assassination attempt on a member of Congress in decades.

Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, headed for a nighttime service in Tucson with a bipartisan delegation aboard Air Force One in a sign of solidarity.

Back on Capitol Hill, Giffords' House colleagues praised her and the other shooting victims and insisted that violence would not silence democracy.

"We will have the last word," declared new House Speaker John Boehner. He fought back tears as he described Giffords' battle to recover from Saturday's gunshot wound to her head.

Mr. Obama was again playing the role of national consoler that comes to all presidents and, in rare times, helps define them.

He drew on his own somber experience, following the shooting rampage by one of the military's own members at the Fort Hood army post in 2009. Then, as expected now, Mr. Obama focused his comments on how the victims led their lives.

The president was fine-tuning his speech as he flew across the country. He was to be the last speaker at the event.

His main mission was to give a warm and honorable portrait of the six people who were killed at Giffords' community outreach gathering last Saturday. Their stories have already taken hold in a country consumed by this sad story; among those who died were a 9-year-old-girl, a prominent judge and an aide to Giffords who was engaged to be married.

Obama was expected to speak about the courage of those who intervened to tackle the gunman and help the wounded. He was also assuring grieving families that the country was behind them. And to those grasping for answers, Obama was likely explore how "we can come together as a stronger nation" in the aftermath of the tragedy, as he put it earlier this week.

In times of calamity, the country has long turned to its presidents for the right words of assurance. It is test of leadership that comes with the job.

Recent history recalls George W. Bush with a bullhorn amid the rubble of Sept. 11, 2001, Bill Clinton's leadership after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and Ronald Reagan's response to the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, when he spoke about being "pained to the core."

For Obama, the most instructive lesson may be one from his own presidency.

He led the memorial at Fort Hood, trying to help a shaken nation cope with a mass shooting that left 13 people dead and more than two dozen wounded. He spent the first part of that speech naming the people who had been killed and describing how they spent their lives; he used the second half to remind everyone of American endurance and justice.

The shootings, apparently a brazen attempt to kill a member of Congress, shattered a Saturday event Giffords had organized outside a grocery as a way for her constituents to chat with her.

Threats against lawmakers are not uncommon, but violence is rare. The last killing of a serving member of Congress was in November 1978, when Rep. Leo Ryan, a California Democrat, was murdered in the South American jungle of Guyana while investigating the Jonestown cult.

The Arizona episode has sparked a broader debate, unfolding in the media for days, about whether the vitriol of today's politics played a role. Obama has long called for the importance of more civil political discourse, but he has made no comments on that in connection to this shooting, and he was not expected to choose Wednesday night's event as the forum to do so.

Police say the man accused of the shootings, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, shot Giffords as well as many in the line of people waiting to talk with her. The attack ended when bystanders tackled the man. He is in jail on federal charges as police continue to investigate.

Four days after the shootings, Giffords was making small movements on her own. The three-term Democrat was expected to live. Obama was joined on Air Force One by Republican members of Arizona's congressional delegation, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

By mid-afternoon, the university said 17,000 people were in line for the event, exceeding the arena's intended capacity. Overflow seating was set up at the school's football stadium, with a video of the proceedings to be played on the scoreboard screen.