As Barack Obama continues to reflect on his legacy in a series of exit interviews, the outgoing president says he still considers the day he met with the families of the victims of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 the toughest day of his presidency.
“I still consider the day I traveled up to Newtown to meet with parents and address that community as the toughest day of my presidency,” Obama told the History Channel in an interview that will air on Jan. 15, five days before he leaves office. “It’s the only time I ever saw Secret Service cry at an event. So it was brutal.”
Obama himself has often been moved to tears when reflecting on the mass shooting that killed 26 people — including 20 children — in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012. He teared up delivering a statement the day of the massacre, at an interfaith vigil in Newtown, and even at the White House last January while announcing executive actions designed to curb gun deaths.
“Every time I think about those kids, it makes me mad,” Obama said Jan. 5, 2016.
Slideshow: Scenes from Newtown, Conn., Dec. 14-21, 2012
At a CNN town hall event on gun violence a few days later, Obama said the experience of meeting with their grieving families “continues to haunt me.”
“It wasn’t just the parents,” he told Anderson Cooper. “You had siblings, you know — 10-year-olds, 8-year-olds, 3-year-olds who in some cases didn’t even understand that their brother or sister weren’t going to be coming home.”
In a 2014 book, “The President’s Devotional,” Joshua Dubois, former head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, described those meetings, which were held in classrooms at a different school two days after the tragedy:
Person after person received an engulfing hug from our commander in chief. He’d say, “Tell me about your son … Tell me about your daughter,” and then hold pictures of the lost beloved as their parents described favorite foods, television shows, and the sound of their laughter. For the younger siblings of those who had passed away — many of them two, three, or four years old, too young to understand it all — the president would grab them and toss them, laughing, up into the air, and then hand them a box of White House M&M’s, which were always kept close at hand. In each room, I saw his eyes water, but he did not break.
And then the entire scene would repeat — for hours. Over and over and over again, through well over a hundred relatives of the fallen, each one equally broken, wrecked by the loss. After each classroom, we would go back into those fluorescent hallways and walk through the names of the coming families, and then the president would dive back in, like a soldier returning to a tour of duty in a worthy but wearing war. We spent what felt like a lifetime in those classrooms, and every single person received the same tender treatment. The same hugs. The same looks, directly in their eyes. The same sincere offer of support and prayer.
The staff did the preparation work, but the comfort and healing were all on President Obama. I remember worrying about the toll it was taking on him. And of course, even a president’s comfort was woefully inadequate for these families in the face of this particularly unspeakable loss. But it became some small measure of love, on a weekend when evil reigned.
That night, Obama spoke at the vigil, delivering what he would later call the most difficult speech he’s ever had to give.
“We gather here in memory of 20 beautiful children and six remarkable adults,” Obama said. “They lost their lives in a school that could have been any school in a quiet town full of good and decent people, that could be any town in America.”
“Here in Newtown, I come to offer the love and prayers of a nation. I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts,” he continued. “I can only hope it helps for you to know that you’re not alone in your grief, that our world, too, has been torn apart, that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you. We’ve pulled our children tight. And you must know that whatever measure of comfort we can provide, we will provide. Whatever portion of sadness that we can share with you to ease this heavy load, we will gladly bear it. Newtown, you are not alone.”
Obama closed by reading the names of the 20 children.
“Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeline, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Benjamin, Avielle, Allison,” he said. “God has called them all home.”