I can’t get the image out of my mind.
That pair of green Converse sneakers, being held on her knees by Matthew McConaughey’s wife, Camila, as he spoke with searing passion at the White House about the Uvalde, Texas, school massacre.
The simple hand-drawn black heart above the big toe on the right shoe.
They belonged to Maite Rodriquez, a 9-year-old girl who was annihilated so horrendously in her classroom that the distinctive sneakers were the only way anyone could identify her afterward.
I have a 10-year-old daughter who wears sneakers and loves to draw.
I cannot comprehend the magnitude of such horror.
I don’t want to comprehend it.
It’s just … incomprehensible.
McConaughey, who was born and raised in Uvalde, didn’t try to make sense of it.
Instead, he stood at the world’s most powerful podium, his voice shaking with raw emotion, and told us the stories of each of those 19 young victims.
And it was when he got to Maite, and her sneakers, that I felt my eyes sting with tears.
“Maite wore green high-top Converse with a heart she had hand-drawn on the right toe because they represented her love of nature,” he said.
Then he addressed his wife, sitting quietly to the side.
“Camila has got these shoes. Can you show these shoes, please?”
The camera switched to the sneakers sitting on Camila’s knees.
‘Wore these every day,” McConaughey continued. “Green Converse with a heart on the right toe.”
As Camila, and the watching world, stared down at them, she was suddenly overwhelmed with anguish, because she knew what her husband was about to say next.
“These are the same green Converse on her feet,” he continued, “that turned out to be the only clear evidence that could identify her after the shooting.”
Then McConaughey furiously punched the lectern.
“HOW ‘BOUT THAT?!” he exclaimed, rage and distress etched into his face.
There’s never been a more powerful or gut-wrenching moment in the White House briefing room.
And McConaughey, who with Camila had spent many days in Uvalde since the shooting, spared no detail when he explained the reason why nobody could identify Maite Rodriguez or many of her murdered classmates.
He talked of meeting a cosmetologist in the town who specializes in mortuary makeup.
“That’s the task of making the victims appear as peaceful and natural as possible for their open-casket viewing,” he said. “These bodies were very different. They needed much more than makeup to be presentable. They needed extensive restoration. Why? Due to the exceptionally large exit wounds of an AR-15 rifle. Most of the bodies so mutilated that only DNA tests or green Converse could identify them. Many children were left not only dead, but hollow.”
This was a seminal moment in America’s gun violence debate, the moment that I believe will have shaken most Americans to their core, as it shook me to mine.
Once you have that appalling imagery in your head, there is no escaping it.
And there mustn’t be any escaping from it.
The real power of McConaughey’s speech came from the fact he delivered it not to score cheap partisan points or back one side of the gun debate over another, but to appeal to all Americans, whatever their view of guns.
As I watched him, my mind went back to an interview we did together 18 months ago in which McConaughey expressed his frustration at the way the democratic debate has been stifled by the loudest, craziest voices.
“The extreme left and the extreme right completely illegitimize the other side,” he told me then, “or they exaggerate that side’s stance into an irrational state and that’s not fair when either side does that. I would argue we don’t have true confrontation right now, confrontation that gives some validation and legitimizes the opposing point of view. We make it persona non grata, and that’s unconstitutional.”
Yesterday, he rose magnificently to the challenge of defying such damaging orthodoxy.
McConaughey spoke of Uvalde being where he learned “responsible gun ownership.”
And rather than demonize responsible gun owners, as so many of his Hollywood liberal colleagues prefer to do after each mass shooting — and yes, as I have done myself in the past — he made a respectful appeal to them to be part of the solution.
He explained that mourning families of the dead children included “Texas Rangers, hunters, Border Patrol and responsible gun owners who won’t give up their Second Amendment right to bear arms” — but said they all wanted the same thing: “Secure and safe schools, and gun laws that won’t make it so easy for the bad guys to get these damn guns.”
McConaughey called for more investment in mental health, safer schools, less “sensationalized media coverage” of mass shootings, and new gun control measures including better background checks and red-flag laws, age limits for AR-15s to be raised from 18 to 21, and longer waiting periods for such rifles.
He skilfully framed those measures as “responsible gun ownership,” insisting that “responsible gun owners are fed up with the Second Amendment being abused and hijacked by some deranged individuals.”
But it’s what he said about American values that carried the most impact.
“We need to restore our family values,” he pleaded. “We need to restore our American values.”
He urged his fellow countrymen to put the safety of children above politics, to find common ground, to be humble, knowledgeable and wise, to look in the mirror and remind themselves what it means to be an American.
And he urged them to do this to ensure the American dream is not an illusion, reminding us of the dreams those poor slaughtered children had before their lives were snuffed out.
Maite Rodriguez’s mother, Ana, revealed a letter the little girl had recently composed, outlining her career plan to be a marine biologist.
“I want to pass school to get to my dream college Corpus Christi, by the ocean,” Maite wrote. “I need to live next to the ocean because I want to be a marine biologist. Marine biologists study animals and the water. Most of the time, I will be in a lab. Sometimes, I will be on TV.”
Ana wanted us to see her little girl’s heartbreaking letter so it might encourage others to live their dreams.
An America where such dreams can’t come true because children are repeatedly shot dead at school is surely not an America any American wants.
Inevitably, McConaughey’s speech promoted howls of outrage from those on the political extremities, as he knew it would.
Right-wingers attacked him for “Hollywood hypocrisy,” and left-wingers attacked him for not demanding any guns be banned.
One shameful excuse for a journalist even shouted “ARE YOU GRANDSTANDING?!” at him as he left.
No, he wasn’t — though ironically, that reporter was.
What Matthew McConaughey did yesterday was change the tone of the gun debate from toxic, politically motivated mudslinging to respectful, constructive rhetoric intended to unify Americans over an incredibly divisive issue and effect real lasting change that will save lives.
As he said, it’s not a “cure-all,” but it’s something.
“Where do we start?” he asked. “We start by making the loss of these lives matter.”
All right, all right, all right.