It was an incredibly moving start to a day that would bring more tears as the man known as the Great Communicator delivered two of the best, most evocative speeches of his presidency. Not even the most cynical observer was immune to the emotions triggered by Reagan's rhetorical tribute to the "boys of Pointe du Hoc," the brave Rangers who scaled the 130-foot knife-shaped cliff with grappling hooks while German troops fired down on them. Or Reagan's emotional reading of a letter from the daughter of Pfc. Peter Robert Zanatta. Zanatta had been in the first wave of troops to hit Omaha Beach and had dreamed of returning someday. The president's eyes reddened and his voice grew husky as he reported that Zanatta had died before he could realize that dream. He read from Zanatta's daughter's letter: "I'm going there ..., Dad, and I'll see the beaches and the barricades and the monuments. I'll see the graves and I'll put the flowers there just like you wanted to do.... I'll never forget what you went through, Dad, nor will I let anyone else forget." Dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief, Reagan then walked over to Zanatta's daughter, who was crying in the first row, and hugged her.
Even with the passage of another three decades, that type of raw emotion is inescapable when visitors stand amid the simple white crosses and Stars of David that mark the graves of 9,386 American war dead. But much else has changed between that 1984 visit and Obama's journey this week.
The generation that made the landing and liberated a continent is disappearing. In 1984, 10.7 million of the 16.1 million who were in uniform for the war were still alive. Ten years later, when President Clinton went, there were 8.1 million living World War II veterans. For President Bush in 2004, there were 4.4 million survivors. Today, a scant 1 million remain, almost all in their 90s and estimated to be dying at a rate of 555 a day.
The amount of attention paid to a presidential appearance at the hallowed site has also changed. No other president since Reagan has enjoyed the spotlight that was on that 1984 speech. The later speeches by Clinton, Bush, and Obama were heartfelt but less than memorable, all delivered when most Americans were asleep.
Of course, that 1984 spotlight was not happenstance. It was the result of much behind-the-scenes work and even a little bullying by the White House. It was an election year, and Reagan's reelection was not seen as assured at that point. His aides were determined to use his European trip to portray him as in command as he made a sentimental return to his roots in Ireland before going to Normandy and then to a summit in London. As one aide told me then, they wanted a political boost with "40 million Irish-Americans, umpteen million World War II veterans, and God only knows how many million voters who just like to see their president in charge."