The latest controversy over President Obama’s noticeable absence from Memorial Day observances at Arlington Cemetery presents us with a strange cautionary tale on how not to observe Memorial Day. There’s an interesting bit of paradox in predictable conservative reaction to the President’s decision to vacation with family in Chicago. On one hand, as folks like red state ratings hog Glenn Beck would (emphasize predictably) argue the President disrespects veterans by choosing brief reprieve over Commander-in-Chief duty, the other hand can’t help but point out the disrespect in using veterans to politicize the issue. There is, suddenly, the non-issue of whether this is an issue in the first place. Maureen Dowd says it is an issue in her latest, rather cheeky stomach punch of a column in the New York Times:
Just as President Clinton once protested to reporters that he was still “relevant,” President Obama had to protest to reporters last week that he has feelings. He seemed to tune out a bit after the exhausting battle over health care, with the air of someone who says to himself: “Oh, man, that was a heavy lift. I’m taking a break.” He’s spending the holiday weekend in Chicago when he should be commemorating Memorial Day here with the families of troops killed in battle and with veterans at Arlington Cemetery.
Opposition trend points to the right attempting to paint Obama as either “lazy” or “in over his head.” This is somewhat unprecedented in modern Presidential politics. Past Presidents get pegged as either indecisive, perhaps misguided or, in the case of the last one, plain moronic. Since no one can doubt the current President’s IQ, the political portrait of last resort is couch potato. The other contradiction in this is that, for all its hype over “family values,” the right is having a hard time accepting this particular President’s fairly rigid family regimen. He seems genuinely into his clan, taking great pains to pay honey dues when opportunity arises. But, in this case, Black man damned if he does spend time with family and, of course, banned as social abomination if he does not.
But, getting back to Memorial Day: is it an issue? Joe Biesk in the Chicago Sun Times reports that it is for a loud few:
Nothing against the Abraham Lincoln cemetery, but it should be a standing tradition for the nation’s commander in chief to honor the fallen soldiers buried at Arlington, said John Conrath, commander of the American Veterans Motorcycle Riders Association Chapter 11 in Joliet. It’s an American tradition that’s on par with the Fourth of July, Conrath said.
“Obama, to me, it seems that he wants to break every tradition that this country has ever had. All these things that he’s doing, it seems that he wants to ruffle everyone’s feathers,” Conrath said. “It’s aggravating. I really think he should be in Washington this Memorial Day weekend.”
There is little doubt that every American soldier serving around the world knows that their Commander-in-Chief will not be at Arlington on Memorial Day. News like that travels quickly within the military.
Brazzone’s point, however gruff, is a strong one: the President doesn’t have the luxury of acting like a peacetime President in a time of world war. But, maybe that’s the subtle message in his absence. He’s doesn’t really see himself as a wartime President. And the American public, which is so absorbed by economic crisis and ecological apocalypse that it finds itself forgetting about war, shouldn’t expect him to act like one.
What we have learned about this President is that he doesn’t act – he thinks. Each move as meticulously calculated as the past. Laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 2009 seemed appropriate as first year President gripping reins of war from his predecessor thereby acknowledging the multi-front quagmire before him. But, second year President moves steadfast and firm on his decision to ultimately withdraw from it. His notoriously barefaced Vice President makes routinely candid statements to that effect and will, naturally, serve as public point person on Memorial Day. It is now time to prepare the American psyche for a post-wartime President; saluting war dead at Arlington National Cemetery solidifies the image of a Commander-in-Chief still engaged. It’s an image he’d rather not own. As he bullishly directs gradual drawbacks and redeployments of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, President Obama is making every effort to complete this transition in terms of policy and public face.