Governor reveals steady hand

A wave of horrifying tragedies across Colorado this summer has reminded the state — and through our grief, the nation — that life is fragile, precious in the extreme. Invincibility is an illusion that, in the sunny days of a carefree summer, has a tendency to allure us all. The events of the tragic year 2012 remind us how foolish an illusion that is.

When wildfire raced over the mountains surrounding Manitou Springs, and then pivoted in a mad dash for the subdivisions along the wildland interface of Colorado Springs, the images were horrifying ­— unthinkable, even — to hardened Westerners accustomed to the fury that follows Mother Nature unleashed.

Tens of thousands were forced to flee, and many who did would later discover that their homes had been reduced to black.

Devastating fires swept the rugged landscapes of Larimer County and the eastern slope of the Front Range earlier this spring, too. One elderly couple, ages 76 and 77, perished in the maelstrom of a fire near Conifer, trapped on the driveway of the retirement home they had built together, taken from Earth by flames that moved too fast.

Their lives and deaths moved all who learned of their story — such decent people taken under circumstances so arbitrary.

The same has been said a thousand times over of those who were lost in a different inferno — the one at the movie theater complex in Aurora on that fateful night last month. Awful, horrible, terrible, shocking – descriptions too bland to capture the full horror of what happened in theater.

Like Oklahoma City. Like Columbine. Yes. And in some ways, worse.

As these tragedies played themselves out, one after the other after the other, there has been one unfair common thread: Each and every one of them happened here, leaving Colorado to collectively wonder why.

This being the age of satellite trucks and 24-hour news, tragedy always catapults hometown personalities to the national stage — in this case, it has been John Hickenlooper filling the role. He, like political leaders before him, has been asked to speak on behalf of us all.

Sometimes our leaders do it well. Gov. Bill Owens was praised for his handling of the Columbine cacophony — rightly.

Sometimes, not so well. The same Owens was lampooned later in his tenure for saying all of Colorado was burning one summer when, unlike earlier this year, all of Colorado was not burning.

Some do it in ways that distinguish themselves for the ages. The world will always note and long remember Rudolph Giuliani in the minutes, days and months after 9/11. When asked how many New Yorkers were lost, a man then viewed as a hot-headed partisan became a national rallying symbol when he replied, almost reluctantly, “more than we can bear.”

Here in Colorado, during this long and sad summer, Hickenlooper has been asked to put into words events that defy description. Through it all, with very little exception, Hickenlooper has revealed a strong and steady hand.

When Hickenlooper first appeared at the Waldo fire, he seemed almost reticent to be talking to the cameras. He didn’t trek to the Springs to solve anything or propose anything, he said in an ad hoc news appearance, only to see what, if any, help he could be. Using speech always more Bush than Obama, Hickenlooper searched for words on the 10 o’clock news that night — and he found them, conveying sadness, horror and remorse, with never even the slightest hint of slick.

More impressive still was his handling of Aurora, a tragedy accompanied by widespread scrutiny, in quarters fraught with political peril. Predictable partisans (and the press) wanted to debate gun control, but Hickenlooper was having none of it. Whether it was by instinct or good coaching, the guv avoided politics assiduously, and he said everything just right.

Rather than pining for new laws, he spoke instead of human loss. Instead of getting rapped around the axle of a debate gun control, he deflected, and said this was instead a time to mourn and reflect. When Hickenlooper repeatedly shrugged off one CNN anchor’s repeated bid to goad him into a Sunday morning debate on guns, I admit that I clapped.

What makes Hickenlooper’s performance this summer so admirable is that cheers and attaboys didn’t seem to be his aim. It isn’t easy to be simultaneously reticent and resolved, but through it all this summer, Colorado’s governor has been exactly that.

The various tragedies here in Colorado have indeed reminded us that invincibility is an allusion, and maybe that is the reason so many are drawn to Hickenlooper. Even though his approval numbers suggest that he is well regarded, he doesn’t appear to spend any time trying to be.

Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He is a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.


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