President Reagan said it was "one of the saddest journeys of my presidency" when he went to Andrews Air Force Base on April 23, 1983, to view the arrival of the bodies of 16 Americans killed in the U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut. The effect was evident hours later when he attended the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner. "The original plan was that I would sing for my supper," a somber Reagan told the audience. "Nancy and I had another sad journey that we had to make before coming here tonight. I hope you understand. I just don't feel, coming as we did from Andrews Air Force Base, I could stand up here." Privately, he explained his decision to drop his planned jokes to that year's WHCA president, Thomas DeFrank of Newsweek. "At one point at Andrews he got so choked up he couldn't speak," said DeFrank.
Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush, had even more difficulty meeting with surviving family members. In 1989, he could not get through his planned remarks at a Norfolk memorial for the 47 sailors killed in an explosion aboard the USS Iowa. A deeply moved Bush tried to explain his emotions to reporters afterward. "The Bush family's not very good at that kind of thing, anyway. But you've got to show them concern.... You know how you do it? Pray for strength," he said.
He added, "I did choke up at the end, but I did feel a kind of inner peace about the thing. I felt I had to represent our country. This one was tough." He said he once asked Reagan about this part of the job and asked him how he did it. "He used the expression, "˜You puddle up once in a while,' " said Bush.
For George W. Bush, it was more than just puddling up after 9/11, in part because both the stakes and the casualty numbers were so high. No day was more wrenching emotionally for him than Sept. 14, 2001, when he spoke at the National Cathedral in the morning, grabbed a bullhorn while standing atop the rubble at Ground Zero in the afternoon, and concluded his trip to New York with a visit with survivors and grieving families at the Jacob Javits Center. It was there that Arlene Howard pressed into the president's hand the police shield of her son, George Howard, a Port Authority officer who died at Ground Zero. For the rest of his presidency, Bush carried that shield with him, and it will be on display next week when the Bush Presidential Library opens in Texas.
"She wanted to bring something that was very meaningful about her son so the president would remember him," said Fleischer. "That's why these things are also good for the presidents, because it helps connect them in a very vivid way with the people whose lives have been changed." Fleischer said these "behind-the-scenes moments" are amazingly powerful. "People would bring their Bible up to the president. There was prayer and citing their favorite passages in the Bible. Hugging everywhere. It was so emotional at many points that the Secret Service, who are usually in that protective phalanx around the president, they stood back so it was just the president and the family members. It helped create that connection with no interference."