At the Beirut airport, 241 marines were killed in their barracks. Ten minutes later a second suicide bomber killed 58 French soldiers two miles away. The next morning, I was asked if I could get away from my job in the White House policy planning office to handle the press advance if President Ronald Reagan decided to attend a memorial service for the slain marines.
If the president decided to go, I'd go too, I said. I come from a military family. My father fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. I understood the importance of honoring fallen troops, but I didn't look forward to going to Camp Lejeune, N.C. I still remembered what it was like to have childhood friends become fatherless overnight.
Two days later, with the Grenada invasion under way, the president made up his mind about the memorial service: He was going to go. We had just over seven days to prepare, and so I grabbed the first available flight from Andrews Air Force Base to Camp Lejeune.
I was uncomfortable about the task ahead. There would be grief and anger and raw pain mingled uneasily with patriotism and pride and a search to draw meaning from mind-numbing slaughter.
My job was among the most thankless at such a time. Nobody likes the intrusion of a camera at a time of sorrow. And I was the guy responsible for making sure the press had a ringside seat. I wondered whether I would be welcomed -- or reviled.
The Marine public affairs staff members I worked with over the course of the week did their best to be accommodating as I laid on requirements from helicopters and vans to ferry the press to camera platforms and extra phone lines for filing reports. When my demands occasionally exceeded their authority, the issue would move up the chain of the command.
A request by the television networks to cover the memorial service live went all the way to the top. The White House supported the request, but Maj. Gen. Alfred M. Gray Jr., commander of the Second Marine Division at
Camp Lejeune, and later the commandant of the Marine Corps, resisted the idea. The general reminded me sharply that the networks' need for extra phone lines at his headquarters came second to his need to use it as a command center for Marine operations.
Something told me the general's concerns were more about propriety than logistics. The atmosphere was tense, but I made my pitch. If coverage were limited to the network news, we would be lucky to get five minutes of broadcast time. Live television, I said, would bring the unedited memorial service into millions of homes, allowing the nation to share not only the grief but also the dignity of the service commemorating the fallen soldiers. The families would still meet privately with the president and Nancy Reagan. The press would not intrude upon that.
Finally, I said that Americans had been shocked by the attack. Letting them share in the full memorial service would help restore pride. The general relented.
There has been considerable discussion recently about whether President Bush has done enough to honor the lives of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the president writes letters to the families of soldiers who have been killed and meets privately with them at military bases, he has not attended an open memorial or a military service. That's a mistake.
And if given the opportunity, I would tell the president today what I told the general back then. The commander in chief should publicly honor the individual lives sacrificed in war. He should show his respect in front of the television cameras. A nation is a community, and the lives that are lost belong not just to families, but also to us all. As the only political figure who represents the whole nation, the duty of commemorating these deaths belongs uniquely to the president.
As a fellow Republican, I would also offer Karl Rove some friendly political advice. Skipping memorial services makes the president look weak. It creates the impression that he values his own political standing above the lost lives of servicemen and women. Avoiding the grieving families invites demagoguery because so many of our professional soldiers come from the middle and lower classes of American society, and not the president's own privileged social class. With an election approaching, presenting the picture of a president who has time for fund-raisers but not for military funerals would be an egregious mistake.
Finally, there is an asymmetry to the administration's use of the military in presidential events that needs adjustment. It is wrong to bask publicly in glory on the deck of an aircraft carrier unless you are also willing to grieve openly for fallen soldiers. You can't wrap yourself in the flag while avoiding flag-draped coffins.
Two networks went live at Camp Lejeune when Nancy and Ronald Reagan arrived for the memorial service. It was a cold November morning. The president and first lady stood under umbrellas. The pool press, sandwiched between the podium and the families, knelt in the soaked grass throughout the service to avoid blocking the mourners' view. I knelt with them. And although I was already shivering with cold, I will never forget the fresh chills that ran through me when I heard the sobs behind me.
The president later said that going to the service was "as hard as anything" he had ever done. Days earlier, working on the Grenada speech, I saw war almost as an abstraction. With the families at Camp Lejeune, it was depressingly real. At that moment, in that place, I felt a sense of moral accountability for my own minor role in White House affairs. My feelings couldn't have been even a tiny fraction of what the president must have felt that day.
When a subsequent Pentagon review faulted Marine commanders in Beirut for lax security, the president shouldered the blame. "I took the full responsibility," he wrote in his memoir. "I was the one who had sent them there."
For that reason alone, it is time for President Bush to honor the dead.
John B. Roberts II, who served in the Reagan administration from 1981 to 1985, is author of Rating the First Ladies: The Women Who Influenced the Presidency. This op/ed originally appeared in the New York Times.
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