On Friday, with 20 children among the 27 victims, Obama said he reacted to the news not as a president but as a father. He referred to the dead as "our children."
"This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter, and we'll tell them that we love them, and we'll remind each other how deeply we love one another," Obama said. "But there are families in Connecticut who cannot do that tonight, and they need all of us right now."
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., who considers himself a friend of the president, said, "Those were tears that came from deep, deep, deep within. . . . He's the type of guy who's cool, always calm, always able to hold it together, but then there come these events that you don't have the answers to."
The personal tone of Obama's remarks evoked his comments in March, when he said that "if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," referring to Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old black teenager fatally shot in Florida by a neighborhood watch member.
Obama has shed tears in public before, but even as a wartime commander in chief, he had never done so in marking a national tragedy.
In the closing days of his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama cried at an evening rally in Virginia soon after the death of his grandmother. Concluding his 2012 reelection race, he wept thanking an audience in Des Moines for supporting his candidacy. Two days later, with victory in the last race of his life safely in hand, Obama choked up while addressing campaign staff and volunteers in Chicago.
On Friday, Obama ended his comments by quoting Scripture. "Heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds," he said.
Then he walked away in silence. The flag atop the White House was lowered to half-staff.