Why Obama’s Normandy Visit Is — and Isn’t — Like Reagan’s

Since 1984, a lot has changed about the way presidents mark D-Day.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy walk among the crosses of the Normandy American Cemetery June 6, 1984 in Normandy, France. Reagan is visiting France on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Omaha Beach invasion, otherwise known as "D-Day" on June 6, 1944. 
Getty Images
George E. Condon Jr.
June 5, 2014, 5 p.m.

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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.

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