Twenty years ago, as a speechwriter for President Clinton, I traveled to Normandy for the 50th anniversary of D-Day. This week I’m returning for the first time, with my fellow former speechwriter Jeremy Rosner and our spouses, to be present for the 70th-anniversary commemoration. Preparing for this trip has led me to reflect on what’s timeless and what’s evanescent in politics and presidential leadership.
D-Day, of course, is too great a day full of too many consequential deeds to be reduced to mere politics. The Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, was a turning point in modern history. Had it failed, had Hitler been able to solidify his hold on France, I might now be writing this from a besieged American outpost of democracy in a totalitarian world. Or I might not be at all: Who’s to say whether my parents could have made their way from China to America, met, and raised a family here if the world still had a real Axis?
What we can be sure of is that D-Day occupies a powerful if shifting place in the American imagination: vivid and urgent, thanks to Saving Private Ryan and other cinematic depictions of the Greatest Generation at war; yet at the same time fuzzy and filtered, thanks to, well, time and the passing of that generation. Soon enough, D-Day will not be the lived experience of anyone living. It will be only history, in a country where we say “that’s history” to mean that something’s irrelevant.
That’s why D-Day + 50 infused me with such a sense of purpose back in 1994. Working on those speeches for Clinton was by far the most meaningful experience in my time at the White House. It wasn’t just that it was Clinton’s biggest moment on the world stage to that point, and one of the biggest global convocations since the end of the Cold War. It was personal for me. Here, after all, was a Generation X son of immigrants helping the nation’s first Baby Boom president to honor the GI Generation, and to thank them for winning a war that everyone could agree was “good.”
This telescopic view gave me proper perspective: I was a second-generation American and a third-generation legatee of D-Day who had had to do precious little to earn the bounty around him and who now felt that truly the least he could do would be to help kindle a nation’s memory.
To do that, I did more research than I’d ever done before. This was before the Web, though we did have the Library of Congress at our disposal and could get pretty much anyone to return a call from the White House. So for months in advance, Jeremy and I and our colleague Don Baer embarked on an amateur historian’s dream journey. We read every book we could about D-Day. We read letters sent by soldiers on the eve of invasion. We talked to veterans, listened to oral histories. We talked to Stephen Ambrose and other historians.
We also steeped ourselves in classic war-memorial speeches. The Gettysburg Address, of course, but also lesser-known speeches, like Daniel Webster’s 1825 address to mark the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Or Woodrow Wilson’s July 4, 1913 speech for the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg.
We mined them for cadence and call. From Wilson’s forgotten speech, one line caught my ear—“We are debtors to those 50 crowded years”—and I echoed it in the opening of Clinton’s speech at the American military cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer: “Here on this quiet plateau, on this small piece of American soil, we honor those who gave their lives for us 50 crowded years ago.”
And of course, the most recent and relevant commemorative speeches were those President Reagan had delivered a decade prior at the 40th anniversary of D-Day. Reagan’s speeches, written mainly by Peggy Noonan, are masterpieces, particularly the one delivered from atop the limestone cliffs that Army Rangers had scaled as Nazis shot at them from above (“These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc …”).
We studied those Reagan speeches closely—to note their rhetorical devices and stagecraft, and to be sure not to imitate them. They were that good. But if Reagan’s Pointe du Hoc speech remains the standard, Clinton, fittingly, made an emotional connection at Colleville that will be hard ever to match.
I’ll never forget standing by the front row of seats at that cemetery above Omaha Beach, beholding the proud old veterans who sat straight-backed, many in uniforms that still fit. At the pivot point of the president’s short speech, he delivered a line that I can take only partial credit for. It had come, in rough form, from a hand-scrawled letter to Clinton from a D-Day veteran:
Oh, they may walk with a little less spring in their step, and their ranks are growing thinner. But let us never forget: When they were young, these men saved the world.
I peered over at those men just then, and when I realized their shoulders were shaking and their torsos quavering because they were crying, I looked at Jeremy and we both began to bawl.
Of course, the speech Clinton gave also had complex foreign-policy work to do. With the Soviet Union gone but a Yeltsin-led Russia still wobbly, the president had to reassure Europe that America wasn’t going anywhere and reassure Moscow that it would now be welcomed into a free and future-facing Europe.
When President Obama speaks at the D-Day + 70 international ceremony Friday, the occasion will be, in a wholly different way, complex. There will be fewer surviving heroes there. Vladimir Putin’s presence will be awkward. No one speaks hopefully about Russia now, or of the irresistibility of liberal democracy worldwide.
It won’t matter. On some rare occasions, when a president speaks (or chooses not to, as Dwight Eisenhower did on June 6, 1954), the political and geopolitical noise recedes. What we’re left with is one person embodying for one moment the memory of a nation that, for all its amnesia, remembers that it is still indispensable. That’s the power of the American presidency. And it’s the message of D-Day + forever.