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Obama Memorial Day Wreath-Laying Need Not Be at Arlington Cemetery

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The news that some conservative critics were exacting their pound of flesh from a Democratic president for not laying a wreath this year at Arlington National Cemetery certainly was a reach, especially after the White House revealed that Vice President Joe Biden was going to Arlington -- and that the commander-in-chief would pay his respects at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Ill.

The Lincoln cemetery, 50 miles southwest of Chicago, was not one of the original 14 designated by Congress in 1862 and signed into law by President Lincoln himself – but neither was Arlington, which was then the recently evacuated home of Robert E. Lee. In the vicinity of the capital, Congress designated three sites: The Soldiers Home in Washington, where Lincoln spent his wartime summers, and cemeteries in Alexandria, Va., and Annapolis, Md. As those sites filled up in 1864, the government looked at the 1,100-acre Arlington estate, and began to use that land to bury the Union dead.

The sprawling Lee estate on the hill overlooking Washington had been inherited by Lee's wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, a great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. At great cost to himself and his country, Lee had ignored President George Washington's famous exhortation to his countrymen to keep their nation together and had commanded the rebel Army of Northern Virginia. To some Union officers, Lee's land seemed a fitting resting place for their dead -- a grim rebuke, as it were, to their former comrade -- while to others it was only a temporary, emergency measure. It's forgotten, now, but after the Civil War ended, some 300,000 Union war dead were located and re-interred in cemeteries closer to their families, including some of those buried at Arlington.

Any notion that this cemetery is somehow more sacred than the others is not only absurd; it is on its face ahistorical. The idea that a president is required to lay a wreath there on Memorial Day also has no valid traditional basis. As recently as 1993, a U.S. president left office without having done so once. His name is George H.W. Bush, and his patriotism and his bravery in wartime are beyond question.

The summer after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, then 17-year-old George Bush was in the graduating class at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. Secretary of War Henry Stimson delivered the commencement address at Andover in 1942 and urged the graduating class to go to college instead of enlisting. It was to be a long war, Stimson told the boys, and their country would need seasoned and educated officers.

"George, did the secretary say anything to change your mind?" Prescott Bush asked his son nervously afterward.

"No, sir," young Bush said over his shoulder. "I'm going in."

And so he did, joining the U.S. Navy, becoming the youngest American aviator in the Pacific theater and winning the Navy's Distinguished Flying Cross for completing his mission after his plane was hit by enemy fire, killing two of his crew members, and dropping Bush into the Pacific Ocean.

This nation's passion for Arlington National Cemetery came when another World War II naval hero-turned president was buried there amid sadness and shock in 1963. John F. Kennedy's funeral was watched by millions of Americans, many of them his "Greatest Generation" cohorts, who decided that Arlington was a fitting resting place for them, as well. It's a beautiful and consecrated ground, but this nation's heroes are numerous -- too numerous to ever fit in a single graveyard.

It has always been thus, and we can grieve for the families of those who were lost, even while appreciating that we live in a country where so many of our citizens raise their hands in wartime and say, "I'm going in." Wherever they are buried is consecrated ground, whether it's one of the 133 national cemeteries or a private resting place known mainly to the family and friends of the fallen. It's their presence that consecrates the ground.

The hallowed ground in Elwood, Ill., serves as a reminder of that truth. It was designated as a national cemetery in 1999, but even before that, it was a burial ground for some of Illinois' best and bravest sons. In Section One, grave No. 1613, lie the remains of 1st Sgt. Theodore Hyatt of the 127th Illinois Infantry, who died in May 1863 at the Battle of Vicksburg, and for his gallantry as a member of a "volunteer storming party" was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Michael Pearson is buried in Elwood, too. He was an Army private known in his suburban Chicago hometown for his musical talent. He played piano, was a virtuoso at guitar improvisation, wrote songs, revered Jimi Hendrix, and hoped to someday be a music teacher. Instead, he was killed in last November's massacre at Fort Hood before ever leaving for Afghanistan. He was 21 years old.

Albert D. Ware, a 27-year-old infantryman did make it to Afghanistan -- twice, in fact -- but he didn't make it back home. He joined the service after 9/11 to do his part. His father, Thomas, recalls being afraid for his only son, but proud of him. Last December, Albert's mother, Anna, answered a knock at the door to find uniformed officers bearing the worst news a mother can hear. Her son, who died in combat when his Humvee was blown up, also left behind a wife and three children. Albert Ware is also buried at Elwood, the place his commander-in-chief is to visit Monday.
Filed Under: Military, Memorial Day

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2393 Comments

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I love USA

Carl...maybe if obama had saved the taxpayers some money and driven to Arlington rather than try to make "a big splash" by celebrating memorial day in ILL...no one would be saying a thing about this incident...it is his constant need to make a big splash at our cost that absolutely makes Americans angry.

Found it interesting that God actually handled the situation quite well...it was a great, sunny day at Arlington and Joe did a great job....and people were running away from the president in ILL as showers continued to pour down on them. The president looked like a little kid under the tent and Joe looked like a Vice President! Figure?

God has just a great sense of humor!

June 09 2010 at 1:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
californiasun916

Mr. Cannnon, I was three years behind you at Joaquin Miller! Your columns on RFK's assasination and this one are the first I have read and they are thought-provoking, well-balanced, and touching. Thank you for your exceptionally well-written articles.

June 06 2010 at 3:16 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Bob

On that day, Obama should have been at Arlington instead of running off to be with Jesse, Louis and his favorite Reverend Wright in Chicago. Just an observation.

June 05 2010 at 6:04 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
rp5599

OBAMA WASN'T MISSED MEMORIAL DAY....

June 04 2010 at 9:01 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to rp5599's comment
sehalmiller

It is breaking of tradition thats the problem! Obama wants to break down Americans traditons, culture,free enterprize and society.
'In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the person's becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American. There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag... We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language… And we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.'
Theodore Roosevelt 1907

June 06 2010 at 8:31 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jcarolinaunc

My Dad served in WWII. Obama never served --- and still doesn't. He is the first president to weaken the USA.

June 04 2010 at 7:58 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
weemsle

I am pretty sure that George Bush laid a wreath at the Normandy American National Cemetary in France. You remember for those World War II dead who helped save the world. Probably the second most recognized burial location for US Service men and women. Is Arlington more sacred? Why of course it is. Although every cemetary holding the remains of our fallen warriors, sailors, and servicemen and women are sacred ground, Arlington is the center-point, the memorial so to say of our National Cemetaries. I think your facts are lacking. I think that the Tomb of the Unknown soldier should be where the President of the United States should be on memorial Day laying a wreath. Even if your not a fan of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, laying a wreath at that location represents ALL of our service men and women, not just those from Illinois.

June 04 2010 at 3:01 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to weemsle's comment
californiasun916

What you refer to is George H. W. Bush laying a wreath at a D-Day anniversary.

June 06 2010 at 2:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
xxo1984

Yes, our Military Veterans Do deserve to be Remembered and Honored by All of us who have been the Recipients of their ultimate sacrifices.
Having said that, I don't believe that our current CIC Really does honor any of them, past or present Military, in his heart!

June 02 2010 at 4:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
gar1861

I'm a Vietnam Vet and a member of a VFW. Yesterday, we had the privilege to participate in a ceremony honoring local military whose names are inscribed on the Memorial Wall. They gave their all. This is a yearly tradition that hold dearly to do. In fact, I visit this memorial and a local national cemetary 2-3 times a year for reflection and prayer. Memorial and Veterans Day remembrances/observances are traditions that need to be passed on to future generations to never, never forget those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. One tradition that I always looked forward to is seeing our Commander In Chief in Arlington laying the Wreath and having a momentary prayer in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. To my knowledge, Arlington is the only National Cemetary that has such a tomb. I applaud President Obama for observing Memorial Day. However, and this is regardless of political party, the Tomb of the Unknown deserves to have the Commander in Chief present. After all, no one can go up to the Tomb to touch it or cry over it. Our President can though as he represents all of us to those service men/women that are only known to God.

June 01 2010 at 4:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
getgary01

Ok, I'll try again...as a Vietnam Veteran I do not care whether Obama is ever near an American patriots grave.

May 31 2010 at 8:54 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
ohshush

It does matter who & where ..Some traditions need to be
reinforced strengthened NOT WATERED down.

May 31 2010 at 8:12 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply

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