This weekend, President Obama will skip Memorial Day services at Arlington National Cemetery, and instead he will take his family to Chicago for rest and relaxation. The gesture has rankled many on the right and caused the left to swing into full ‘defend Obama’ mode. However, the fact remains that during a time of war, it is extraordinary that the Commander in Chief of our Armed Forces would choose not to be at Arlington on this solemn occasion.
First, it must be said that the president is not skipping out on his official duties entirely. At the start of the weekend, the president will travel to Louisiana to survey the response to oil spill; only his second trip to the region since the disaster over a month ago. And on Monday, the president will deliver remarks at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, IL. In between these duties he will spend a “casual weekend with friends” and then fly home in time to make a White House tribute to Paul McCartney on Wednesday evening.
So what’s the big deal? As leftist columnist David Corn writes: “[D]oes it matter if Obama throws some leaves on a tomb?” Well, apparently to liberals, it does not matter and to Corn, even wondering why the president would miss the occasion in itself dishonors lost soldiers. Seriously. Somehow, wanting the president to appropriately honor the troops who paid the ultimate price is chalked up as “political ammo.”
The truth is that no president has missed the Arlington ceremony on Memorial Day since 1992. That year, former President Bush attended a ceremony in Maine while campaigning for re-election. In 1992 our nation was not at war. President Bush was himself a decorated war hero in World War II, risking life and limb to complete bombing missions in the Pacific and losing crewmates in the battles. His commitment to honoring his brothers-in-arms was never in doubt. So comparing 1992 to 2010 is not exactly an apples to apples debate.
On the other hand, President Obama has demonstrated time and time again an unwillingness to fully support our troops whether through resources or through rhetoric. He gave a commencement address in 2008 with the theme of ‘serving your country’ on that Memorial Day weekend, and did not mention serving in the military once. His proposed budgets reduce defense spending as a percentage of GDP to pre-9/11 levels. And this White House is uncomfortable even using the term ‘war on terror’ which is the cause that many of those who sacrificed their lives committed themselves to in the first place.
This is not a president who is automatically viewed as a friend of the military, and he has reinforced this view himself, time and time again. In December 2009, the president traveled to West Point (what MSNBC’s Chris Matthew’s called the “enemy camp” that night) to address the ongoing wars and his strategic plans. He used the speech, which was broadcast to all bases overseas, to attack the premise of the Iraq War and his predecessor. He never used the words “win” or “victory” but talked of “conclusions.” And he highlighted his own sacrifice of reading and writing letters and reasserted the ridiculous notion that he was “repairing” relations with the Muslim world.
This was not a morale boost for cadets that evening, or for the country. It did reinforce the idea that President Obama is a reluctant Commander in Chief, who would prefer focus on domestic government growth. It is speeches like these that make conservatives take pause when the president chooses golfing with friends over attending Arlington in a time of war to honor our fallen troops.
To indifferent liberals, this solemn remembrance is merely throwing “leaves on a tomb” and this controversy is the manufactured delusions of “conservative wingnuts.” The Democratic Party’s sister organization ’Media Matters’ has been full throated in trying to turn this controversy around on the president’s detractors. But to veterans, and their families, regardless of political beliefs, this is a symbolic break in tradition that can only be viewed as casual indifference.
Sending Vice President Biden, the man who told Brussels two weeks ago that it, not Washington, should hold the title of ‘capital of the free world’, in his place does not excuse his absence, and will likely give little comfort to those stricken families who expected to hear from their Commander in Chief. President Obama shouldn’t just be at Arlington on Memorial Day, he should want to be there.
UPDATE: As Robert points out in the comments, we failed to point out that President George W. Bush also missed Arlington’s Memorial Day ceremonies in 2002, when he joined Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi, Secretary of State Colin Powell and a bipartisan congressional delegation for services at the American cemetery in Normandy, France, honoring those who paid the ultimate sacrifice on D-Day. Certainly an occasion that was warranted. You can read his remarks here.
UPDATE 2: Many commenters have rightly pointed out that the president will attend services at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, as also mentioned above. It is true that the heroes laid to rest in this cemetery are equally deserving of presidential attention. However, is President Obama attending services here because of the honor of this particular location, or the geographical proximity to his other plans? The memorial at Arlington serves as a national celebration, which is why past presidents have made special efforts to attend, when possible. We appreciate your comments and debate. Thanks for reading.