Twenty-three-year-old 2nd Lt. Emiciades Alcon was nervous as he stood in line at an Army mobile kitchen in the middle of the Saudi desert on Thanksgiving Day 1990. The man standing in line next to him waiting for a slice of turkey was none other than the commander in chief who had ordered the troops into the desert, President George H.W. Bush. When the young officer haltingly thanked him for "showing up here in the desert and showing your support," the president's response was surprising: "That's what Woody Allen said: 90 percent of life is showing up."
Bush might not have been elegant in the way he responded. But he understood the lesson learned before him by so many other presidents—it matters when a president of the United States shows up somewhere; it sends an important message. Too many leaders only relish the parts of the job that involve mastering the details of governance and setting a policy direction. But presidents forget the symbolic "showing up" part of the office at their peril.
Today, President Obama is the latest to absorb this lesson. The president is facing withering criticism on both sides of the Atlantic for his decision—inexplicable to many and inadequately explained by the White House—to stay at home Sunday when so many other world leaders flew to Paris to demonstrate global solidarity with the French in the wake of last week's terrorist attack that left this key U.S. ally shaken. More than 40 world leaders were there, from Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East. They locked arms and marched resolutely down the Place de la Concorde. Israel and the Palestinian Authority were there. Russia sent a top official from Moscow.