President Barack Obama met Friday with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman who survived an assassination attempt in January. The reunion was a bright spot for the president in a day otherwise marked by storm devastation in Alabama and by disappointment in the cancellation of the space shuttle Endeavour’s final launch.
Obama and Giffords, the wife of the shuttle mission’s commander, were in Cape Canaveral to witness the Endeavour’s liftoff. The launch was scuttled due to technical problems.
According to an account provided by the White House, Obama and first lady Michelle Obama saw Giffords for about 10 minutes in a room of Kennedy Space Center’s launch command building. No reporters were allowed to witness the president’s visit with the congresswoman, who is still recuperating from a head wound.
Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, greeted Obama in a corridor, saying, “I bet you were hoping to see a rocket launch today.”
Obama replied: “We were hoping to see you.”
The two men shook hands and embraced. Also present in the room with Giffords were Kelly’s brother, Giffords’ friend and congressional colleague Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and Giffords’ mother.
Obama last saw Giffords at her bedside on Jan. 12, four days after she was shot in a Tucson rampage that left six dead and wounded 12 others. The attack, which had targeted Giffords, stunned the nation and prompted a discussion about political polarization and a widespread reflection on civility.
For Obama, Friday’s reunion with Giffords came after witnessing the aftermath of yet another horrifying event — the ruin left behind by a spate of deadly tornadoes throughout the Southeast. “I’ve never seen devastation like this,” Obama said after touring a storm-wracked neighborhood in Tuscaloosa, Ala. “It is heartbreaking.”
The day’s events underscored the unpredictability of governing. The Alabama visit was a last minute addition to the president’s travel schedule, initially built around the shuttle’s launch but altered in the wake of the storm wreckage. Then technical issues scrapped the launch, proving that even a president’s powers over a government agency are limited.
Meeting with the Endeavour crew, Obama expressed hope he might be able to witness the launch of the final space shuttle flight when Atlantis lifts off in June to end the space shuttle missions. “One more chance, we may be able to get down here,” Obama said.
Giffords has not been seen publicly since the attempt. She left her Houston rehabilitation hospital for the first time to travel to Florida.
Kennedy Space Center Director Robert Cabana didn’t meet with Giffords but said, “She’s enjoying her time in Florida, she’s enjoying her time with Mark and she’s doing well.”
In a Twitter message, her staff wrote: “Bummed about the scrub!! But important to make sure everything on shuttle is working properly.”
A posting on her Facebook page added: “We are looking forward to the quick rescheduling of this scientifically important mission. The congresswoman was pleased, however, to have been able to meet with President Obama and the first family.
“Her travel plans at this time are undetermined.”