Barack Obama went to Normandy for a reason this weekend -- and it was a good one. The president had something he wanted to convey to the world. That message, to paraphrase a point Ronald Reagan used to make, is a simple one, even if it's not an easy one: It is that freedom is not free, and that democracy is worth fighting for -- that sometimes human rights are worth dying for.
Obama is in good historic company. Until this year, the big festivities at Normandy came only on the 10-year anniversaries of D-Day, and for American commanders-in-chief, usually not even then. U.S. presidents don't go willy-nilly to Omaha Beach. They go when they have something they need to say, something they believe will help the world. And themselves.
Dwight D. Eisenhower merely issued a brief written statement from the White House on June 4, 1954. What did he have to prove? The man led the original invasion on June 6, 1944. Ten years later, Lyndon Johnson, in office less than six months after the Kennedy assassination, skipped the 20th anniversary celebration because he was mired in a fight over extending civil rights to Americans, some of whom had liberated Europe. Fighting for his presidency, Richard Nixon eschewed the ceremonies on the coast of France when the 30th anniversary rolled around.
That was decidedly not the case in 1984, when President Reagan turned the 40th anniversary into one of his signature moments as president, while essentially ushering in "Morning Again in America" as an international theme. As the proudest members of The Greatest Generation suddenly got younger before our eyes, Ronald Reagan looked directly at the aged U.S. Army Rangers who, as much more youthful men, scaled the impossibly imposing cliffs at Point-du-Hoc while being raked with German machine gun fire.
"Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs," Reagan said. "And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe-du-Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war."
Reagan went to Normandy as the man who had alarmed liberals by calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire." He left as the American president who had reminded the entire western world of the time when liberals as well as conservatives had fought side-by-side, and defeated tyranny.
Twenty years later, when George W. Bush went to France, he had an even harder job. Bush's host in 2004 was French President Jacques Chirac, who had broken with the Bush administration over the invasion of Iraq. At a joint Paris press conference I attended on June 5 of that year, the body language between the leaders was terrible, the tension palpable. Yet, the following morning Bush won over Chirac with a remarkable, if unremembered speech – one of the best of Bush's presidency.
One reason it is not well remembered is that Reagan, that old trouper, that ham, died that morning – and the news of his death blotted out the sun, as far as the media was concerned. This included those of us making the European trip with Bush, and who found ourselves writing about the 40th president of the United States instead of the 43rd. In addition, and this is real inside baseball, the geniuses who ran the Bush press office made it very difficult, logistically, to cover the president's speech. I am proud to report, however, that yours truly arose at 3 a.m. for a bus trip from Paris to Normandy to be there for the event.
It was well worth it. Prefaced by a gentle nod toward Reagan ("a gallant leader in the cause of freedom"), George W. Bush gave as noble an explication of why democracies fight as any president ever has.
Standing at a lectern with a clear view of the English Channel, packed with vintage ships from the Second World War, Bush spoke of the great battle that had taken place below the cliffs in front of him, and how, when the firing had finally ended and the wounded and dead were removed from the beaches, the sand was still littered for mile upon mile with the equipment of the armies and the belongings of the boys who had given everything they had.
"There were life belts and canteens and socks and K-rations and helmets and diaries and snapshots," Bush said. "And there were Bibles, many Bibles, mixed with the wreckage of war. Our boys had carried in their pockets the book that brought into the world this message: Greater love has no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends. America honors all the liberators who fought here in the noblest of causes."
Turning then toward Chirac, Bush delivered the speech's kicker. "And America would do it again, for our friends."
The field of green was silent for a moment before the aging audience broke into heartfelt applause. Chirac, clearly moved by Bush's words, approached the American president, grasped both his hands, and for a poignant moment, did not let go.