The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Monday, November 24, 2003  

A Memory, Even if Hazy

With few Americans realizing it, and even fewer talking heads, let alone executives from the major media outlets, remarking upon it, President George W. Bush and his handlers have exerted and achieved a breathtaking control over certain images resulting from the war on Iraq, a degree of manipulation to which Michael Deaver, former image-inverter of former President Ronald W. Reagan, could only hope to aspire.

Some commentators from outside the “mainstream” media, and perhaps even a few of the liberal columnists whose essays are carried by a tiny minority of American newspapers, have noticed this, as has many a blogger. As they have observed, the most egregious offense of the Bush administration in its treatment of the war is its strangely effective blackout of media coverage of the dead returning from Iraq, men and women normally accorded a somber but wholly respectful welcome back to American soil, with thoughtful, or at least serious, coverage by the major broadcast and cable networks of the flag-covered caskets and the relatives greeting them.

Had you forgotten about those clips from conflicts past? I haven’t. And I’ll bet there are hundreds of relatives and friends of the dead from the war on Iraq who haven’t either. They have their memories, too, but they forever, it seems, will be, in the public sense at least, memories of other people’s deaths and losses, since, due to the cruel callousness of the Bush administration, they won’t have their own public mourning, bittersweet as mourning always is.

Say what you will about President Reagan, and I’ve said plenty (even though I was a conservative, or at least a “foreign policy hawk,” back in those days), even President Reagan was better than this.

Allow me a memory, one that may be a little fuzzy, but bear with me, as the point remains valid even if I mess up a few details.

It was 1983 and more than 200 Americans were killed in a terrorist attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut. The dead were taken home to Dover Air Force Base (or was it Camp Lejeuene?), where the families of the dead traveled to accept the bodies, mourn alone and with each other, and to hear from President Reagan.

After his prepared remarks, President Reagan and his wife, then First Lady Nancy Reagan, expressed their personal condolences to families of the dead soldiers, walking slowly through the assembled crowd.

I recall vividly a middle-aged woman holding an 8- by 10-inch framed photograph of a uniformed, but still shockingly young, man. Her son, I assumed. As the Reagans approached and extended their hands, the woman stood firm. As she spoke with President and Mrs. Reagan she pointed several times to the photograph, saying, we don’t know what, because the microphones, of which there were legion, couldn’t capture the dialogue. The woman, the presumed mother, was distraught, but she wasn’t angry. She didn’t appear bitter or hostile or accusatory. She was just sad. She was in mourning.

In my memory of the scenes of this meeting, which was played several times on several media outlets, I surmised she was saying, “This was my son. My son. This was my son. And he’s gone.” Both President and Mrs. Reagan were visibly moved by this particular encounter. Mrs. Reagan was, in my memory anyway, shaking and on the verge of a deluge of tears. President Reagan, not widely known for his emotional side, was almost quaking in his shoes. One could see it, also, in his throat, which plainly was choking up. And in his face. He seemed surprised by the outflow of emotion. He stammered, hemmed, and hawed, clearly unable to think of anything to say. I mean that not as an insult. Had I faced such raw emotion, I don’t know what I would have thought to say. It was for me a very emotional picture.

I have no children. You know that. Nor, obviously, have I lost a child, or even a niece or nephew, least of all under horrific circumstances, nor such circumstances that all too many are ready to characterize as “just part of their job.” All I can imagine is the pain, the loss, and the suffering of such parents, spouses, family, and friends -- those who have lost someone dear in armed conflict.

But I know a thing or two about death. Death, generally. That I’ve seen.

And it’s surprising how little it can take to make a bereaved person feel just a little better about that pain, loss, and suffering, especially when the life that preceded it was noble, brave, and generous -- and oh so young.

I hope someone, somewhere in the Bush administration is thinking, even in the repressed corners of his or her politically modulated mind, that this would make a difference, this being just 20 minutes with the President and the First Lady. Not a private meeting, not a meeting at all, nothing too personal, even. Just a simple, brief, little ceremony that says, “Your sons and daughters, your spouses, your parents . . . mattered. To us, as a nation. And to me, personally, as commander in chief. I salute their sacrifice, as do your fellow Americans, but I know also that this a burden I will bear for the rest of my life. More important, I am awed by your strength and your determination, and your character and accomplishments as parents, husbands, and wives. You are, individually and collectively, a national treasure, and an inspiration.”

Is that really too much to ask?

[Post-publication addendum (November 25): In case you missed it: Cher recently proved she’s twice the man and 10 times the leader President Bush could ever hope to be.]

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