Barack Obama is the fifth American president to make a pilgrimage to Normandy while in office and, most likely, the last one to do so in the company of many of the men who made history on the bloodstained beaches of the French coast. His trip, to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944, is a reminder that some things never change, including the debt that later generations owe to those who went before and risked all for liberty.
For me, that was brought home most dramatically and poignantly in the hours before Ronald Reagan commemorated the 40th anniversary in 1984. While waiting for the president, I spent time with a gray-haired but still-vigorous veteran of the landings. As we walked the broad, now-peaceful, expanse of Omaha Beach, he recalled being locked in the most intense of the day’s combat. As he pointed to spots where comrades were cut down, he lost his composure and paused to regain his footing as the sharp memories overtook him. It was then that I heard the quiet sobbing of his family, trailing a few steps behind us. Never before, his daughter told me later, had they heard these stories; never before had her father been able to give voice to such searing and painful memories. It was only by returning to the scene of the battle that he could talk about the horrors he had encountered four decades earlier.
It was an incredibly moving start to a day that would bring more tears as the man known as the Great Communicator delivered two of the best, most evocative speeches of his presidency. Not even the most cynical observer was immune to the emotions triggered by Reagan’s rhetorical tribute to the “boys of Pointe du Hoc,” the brave Rangers who scaled the 130-foot knife-shaped cliff with grappling hooks while German troops fired down on them. Or Reagan’s emotional reading of a letter from the daughter of Pfc. Peter Robert Zanatta. Zanatta had been in the first wave of troops to hit Omaha Beach and had dreamed of returning someday. The president’s eyes reddened and his voice grew husky as he reported that Zanatta had died before he could realize that dream. He read from Zanatta’s daughter’s letter: “I’m going there …, Dad, and I’ll see the beaches and the barricades and the monuments. I’ll see the graves and I’ll put the flowers there just like you wanted to do…. I’ll never forget what you went through, Dad, nor will I let anyone else forget.” Dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief, Reagan then walked over to Zanatta’s daughter, who was crying in the first row, and hugged her.
Even with the passage of another three decades, that type of raw emotion is inescapable when visitors stand amid the simple white crosses and Stars of David that mark the graves of 9,386 American war dead. But much else has changed between that 1984 visit and Obama’s journey this week.
The generation that made the landing and liberated a continent is disappearing. In 1984, 10.7 million of the 16.1 million who were in uniform for the war were still alive. Ten years later, when President Clinton went, there were 8.1 million living World War II veterans. For President Bush in 2004, there were 4.4 million survivors. Today, a scant 1 million remain, almost all in their 90s and estimated to be dying at a rate of 555 a day.
The amount of attention paid to a presidential appearance at the hallowed site has also changed. No other president since Reagan has enjoyed the spotlight that was on that 1984 speech. The later speeches by Clinton, Bush, and Obama were heartfelt but less than memorable, all delivered when most Americans were asleep.
Of course, that 1984 spotlight was not happenstance. It was the result of much behind-the-scenes work and even a little bullying by the White House. It was an election year, and Reagan’s reelection was not seen as assured at that point. His aides were determined to use his European trip to portray him as in command as he made a sentimental return to his roots in Ireland before going to Normandy and then to a summit in London. As one aide told me then, they wanted a political boost with “40 million Irish-Americans, umpteen million World War II veterans, and God only knows how many million voters who just like to see their president in charge.”
But the French, who were running the D-Day ceremonies, were not cooperating. They had a schedule that had Reagan speaking at a bad time for American TV. The White House exerted heavy pressure, even calling in the French ambassador and twisting his arm. The result was a change in the schedule that made the other attendees — including two kings, two queens, two presidents, and assorted prime ministers — alter their own plans. The White House got what it wanted: a speech that could be aired live on the morning news shows, which otherwise would have been dominated by reports of Walter Mondale clinching the Democratic presidential nomination in the five primaries the day before. And, lest there was any doubt that Reagan was the commander in chief and Mondale only a challenger, the White House ordered the nuclear carrier Eisenhower to the English Channel and made sure it was visible over the president’s shoulder as he spoke.
It was a remarkable display of the Reagan White House’s command of presidential stagecraft, and it gave his campaign a bigger boost even than had been expected. All that with barely a peep of protest over the treatment of the other leaders, or the choreographed use of an aircraft carrier. Don’t look for a carrier over Obama’s shoulder this year, though. As all the presidents who followed Reagan to Normandy have learned, some things have, indeed, changed since 1984.