Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Memorial Day Observance
at Arlington National Cemetery

Memorial Day is a time when America acknowledges the service and sacrifices of the men and women of our armed forces. At Arlington National Cemetery an observance has taken place for 142 years, and the focus of the modern observance is the laying of a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns by the President of the United States, which presidents have taken part in since Lyndon Johnson first did in 1968.

From that time forward, with few exceptions, American presidents have paid tribute to the brave men and women who have served their country and the thousands who paid the ultimate price to guarantee us the freedoms won for us in the Revolutionary War.

This year, the Arlington ceremony has become the center of attention, and as this is written, President Barack Obama plans to pass on the Arlington ceremony, and take the family to Chicago for the weekend.
Information on who did and didn’t participate in the Arlington ceremonies each year is difficult to find, but it is documented that in recent memory three presidents did not participate at Arlington at least once during their terms: George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan. Why did they pass up the opportunity and the duty to honor America’s fighting men and women at Arlington?

Ronald Reagan chaired a summit in 1983 in Williamsburg “to mobilise (sic) a common Western position in confronting the Soviet Union in the final stage of the Cold War,” according to Nicholas Bayne in the (begin ital) History of the G7 Summit: The Importance of American Leadership.(end ital) With Reagan as chairman, “the summits reached some pioneering political agreements, stimulated by the US,” and succeeded in having US Cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe to counter Soviet missiles placed nearby. The meeting was a serious and important event, and Mr. Reagan can be forgiven for asking someone to stand in for him at the Memorial Day ceremony while he tended to the nation’s business.

On Memorial Day, 2002, a day after attending the NATO summit in Rome, President George W. Bush, along with Secretary of State Colon Powell, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi, members of the U.S. Congress, members of the U.S. Armed Services and American veterans celebrated Memorial Day at the Normandy American Cemetery, and Colleville-Sur-Mer, France. Mr. Bush was not at Arlington, but he did honor the thousands of Americans buried in France who helped liberate Europe during WWII.

Some people say that in 2007 Mr. Bush was at his ranch in Texas, and Vice President Dick Cheney placed the wreath, however, the Arlington Cemetery Website contains remarks by Mr. Bush dated Memorial Day 2007.

George H. W. Bush, however, is another matter. One account said that in his four years as president he did not attend the Arlington ceremony a single time. One year, he attended a Memorial Day ceremony in Rome, but he spent the others vacationing in Kennebunkport, Maine, and attending ceremonies there, while other officials attended the Arlington ceremonies. However, it is well known that the senior President Bush postponed going to college to serve in the military during WWII and became the youngest aviator in the US Navy at the age of 18. He flew 58 combat missions and was decorated three times, with the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Air Medals, and the Presidential Unit Citation. His patriotism and commitment to the military are beyond question.

On Memorial Day 2009, a few months after being sworn in as President, Barack Obama attended the laying of the wreath at Arlington. The Associated Press reported that “Barack Obama marked his first Memorial Day as president on Monday, saluting the men and women of America's fighting forces, both living and dead, as ‘the best of America’” by laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

This year, the news stories read somewhat differently. Under the headline, “President Obama, Vice President Biden to Participate in Memorial Day Ceremonies” was this report: “On Thursday, May 27, President Barack Obama and his family will travel to Chicago, where they will spend the weekend. On Monday, the President will participate in a Memorial Day ceremony at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Illinois … [and] Vice President and Dr. Jill Biden … will participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.”

Why did President Obama decline to honor America’s fighting men and women at Arlington this year, as most presidents do each year, and instead chose to take his family to Chicago? Well, depending upon which perspective you hold, he is either doing an honorable thing and keeping a campaign promise to visit his adopted home town and attending a ceremony there, or instead of doing his patriotic duty at Arlington he is taking the family on a vacation.

Do you believe Mr. Obama’s reasons for missing the Arlington ceremony are as good as Mr. Reagan’s or the younger Bush’s, or that he has earned a pass like Bush senior through his service? Or do you think that he is abandoning an American tradition and shirking his duty?

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