President Barack Obama urged Americans rattled by a week of violence and protests to find "open hearts" and new empathy Tuesday in a speech in Dallas that seesawed between honoring police officers for their bravery and decrying racial prejudice that can affect their work.
Obama stood next to five empty chairs for the white Dallas police officers killed last week by a black man seeking vengeance for police killings. Behind him, underscoring his message of unity: officers, a racially diverse church choir and local officials who ranged from black Police Chief David Brown to former President George W. Bush, a Dallas resident.
Obama sought to reassure the nation that he understands the impact of the unsettling events of the past week — including the killing of two black men by white police officers as well as the Dallas attacks.
Disturbing videos of the events have "left us wounded and angry and hurt," he said.
"It is as if the deepest fault lines of our democracy have suddenly been exposed, perhaps even widened."
Undaunted, the president urged Americans to cast aside such doubt and replace it with faith in the nation's institutions and progress.
"Dallas, I'm here to say we must reject such despair. I'm here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem. And I know that because I know America. I know how far we've come against impossible odds," he said.
The five Dallas officers were killed last Thursday while standing guard as hundreds of people protested the police killings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota earlier in the week.
Obama joined politicians, police officers and families of the fallen in the wake of the shocking slaying by a black man who said he wanted revenge for the killings of blacks by police.
"The soul of our city was pierced," Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said, as he welcomed Obama to the memorial service. The group had assembled because to combat "a common disease" of violence and honor those who fight it, "our men and women in blue, our peacemakers in blue."
A call for national and solidarity was reinforced by several speakers at the interfaith service, including former President George W. Bush, a Dallas resident, who attended with his wife, Laura, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, and Brown. The group on stage capped the ceremony by holding hands and swaying to the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" — a symbol in sight and song of the service's unity theme.
"At times it feels like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together," Bush said. "Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions. And this has strained our bonds of understanding and common purpose."
Bush called on Americans to reject the unity of grief and fear.
"We want the unity of hope, affection and higher purpose," he said.
Obama has denounced the shooting as a "vicious, calculated and despicable attack on law enforcement" by a "demented" individual. And he has argued that, despite the heated public outcry of the past week, the country is not as divided as it may seem.
Obama's choice of traveling companions underscored that theme. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California both joined Obama on Air Force One for the flight to Dallas. Republican Sen. John Cornyn, attended and spoke at the service, but did not travel with the president.
He described the attack as deeply personal.
"Being a Texan doesn't describe where you're from it, describe who your family is," the senator said.
Bush and other speakers paid tribute to the fallen officers — Brent Thompson, a 43-year-old newlywed; Patrick Zamarripa, 32, a Navy veteran who served in Iraq; Michael Krol, 40, an athlete and basketball lover; Michael Smith, 55, a former Army Ranger and father of two, and Lorne Ahrens, whose wife is a police detective.
No one expressed his appreciation for the men more memorably than Chief Brown, who has emerged as the steady and charismatic face of the Dallas police. The chief spent part of his time reciting Stevie Wonder's "I'll Be Loving You Always" to express his affection for his officers.
The White House said the president worked late into the night writing his speech and consulting scripture for inspiration. Just a few weeks ago, Obama spent hours in Orlando, Florida, consoling the loved ones of 49 people who were killed in a shooting rampage at a nightclub.
After years of delivering emotional pleas for peace at similar memorials, Obama acknowledged his fatigue and the limits of his words on Tuesday.
"I'm not naive," he said. "I've seen how inadequate words can be in bringing about lasting change. I've seen how inadequate my own words have been."
Thursday's attack ended with the gunman, Micah Xavier Johnson, 25, blown up by a bomb delivered by a police robot. The black Army veteran portrayed the attack on the officers as payback for the fatal police shootings of black men in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and suburban Minneapolis.
Portions of both shootings were videotaped and broadcast nationwide, leading to fresh outrage, protests and scores of arrests. The killings also put the country on edge, heightened racial tensions and pushed the issue of the use of deadly force against black males by white police officers to the forefront.
Obama sought to bridge those issues with his tribute to the fallen five, which include a former Army Ranger, a Navy veteran and a newlywed starting a second family.
"I believe our sorrow can make us a better country. I believe our righteous anger can be transformed into more justice and more peace," Obama said, adding that Americans can try to match the fallen officers' sense of service, if not their sacrifice.
Some police officials blame the president for the rise in racial tension, saying he is insufficiently supportive of law enforcement. In comments since the Dallas shooting, Obama has urged the public to recognize and respect that police officers have a tough job.
Tuesday, Obama echoed comments Dallas Police Chief David Brown has made, saying, "So much of the tensions between police departments and minority communities that they serve is because we ask police departments to do too much and we ask too little of ourselves."
Meanwhile, Obama has criticized by others for going to Dallas before visiting Louisiana or Minnesota, a sign that he is aligning with police over protesters.
As Obama landed in Dallas, Earnest said the president had called the families of Alton Sterling, the man shot by police in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile, the Minnesota motorist shot by an officer, to offer his and first lady's condolences.
The president, joined by his wife, Michelle, and Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, also met privately with the families of the slain officers as well as the injured to convey the support and gratitude for their service and sacrifice that has been expressed around the country. At least nine other officers and two civilians were injured in the attack.