TUCSON, Ariz. – What was billed as a memorial for victims of the Arizona shooting rampage turned into a rollicking rally, leaving some conservative commentators wondering whether President Barack Obama's speech was a scripted political event. Not so, insisted the White House and host University of Arizona.
Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said Thursday he and other aides didn't expect the president's remarks at the school's basketball arena to receive as much rousing applause as it did. Gibbs said the crowd's response, at times cheering and shouting, was understandable.
"I think part of the grieving process is celebrating the lives of those that were lost, and celebrating the miracles of those that survived," he said.
The university said it did the planning with minimal input from the White House. The school paid for the event, including $60,000 for 10,000 T-shirts bearing the words "Together We Thrive." The shirts were handed out for free. T-shirts. The money will not come student tuition, fees or tax dollars.
Well before Obama arrived, the atmosphere had become celebratory. People lined up for hours, and when the doors finally opened about two hours before the start, a huge cheer went up and the crowd surged into the arena.
With the exception of elected officials, victims and their families, first responders and medical professionals, the capacity crowd of about 14,000 was admitted on a first-come, first-served basis Wednesday, university spokeswoman Jennifer Fitzenberger said.
But the choreographed nature of the event was too much for some.
"Can't the Democrat political stage managers give it a break just once?," conservative commentator Michelle Malkin wrote in a column on her website, then questioned the lack of White House interaction with the university.
"Given the Obama White House's meticulous attention to stage prop details, however, I would say the odds of involvement by Axelrod/Plouffe & Co. are high."
David Plouffe is a presidential adviser who was the architect of Obama's presidential campaign; David Axelrod has been his political strategist and just left the White House to advise the Obama's re-election campaign.
Rich Lowry of the National Review wrote that "the pep-rally atmosphere was inappropriate and disconcerting," although he admired the president's speech.
To observers, the crowed was spontaneous.
They cheered when the two trauma surgeons who treated Rep. Gabrielle Giffords entered and were shown on the overhead screen. As the camera would focus on other individuals thrust into the spotlight after the shooting, the crowd would go wild, whether it was the first responders, the woman who grabbed the alleged gunman's ammunition, the intern who helped Giffords. In some cases, the person would wave to the camera.
Despite the celebrations in the rafters, the mood below where the families of the victims, the president and other officials sat was far more somber.
Obama frequently bowed his head, resting his chin on his clasped hands. First lady Michelle Obama wiped tears from her eyes. Families of the victims held each other close as speakers shared personal memories of their loved ones.
The president himself appeared taken aback at the sustained applause he received after his remarks. He waved quickly to the crowd as he left the stage, stood with his head down as the crowd continued to cheer, then reached for his wife, and kissed her several times on the cheek.
Christie reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writer Julie Pace in Washington and Tucson contributed to this report.