“These are the boys of Pointe de Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs… These are the heroes.”
President Ronald Reagan, June 6, 1984, 40th anniversary of D-Day
These are the presidents of Pointe du Hoc. These are the leaders who come to the cliffs that overlook the beaches of Normandy, France, on special anniversary years, and honor the heroes who took the cliffs, liberated France and waged the war that ultimately saved the world.
It was Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, then Allied Supreme Commander and later America’s 34th president, who ordered the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 (which became forever known as D-Day), and sent those men and boys on their mission that would be both horrific and heroic. His World War II troops heard his words via radio:
“Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. …”
Over the decades, Ronald Reagan’s iconic 1984 Normandy address came to define what a great presidential speech could be, as he delivered the message sculpted by his excellent speechwriter, Peggy Noonan.
Now, on Thursday, President Donald Trump marked D-Day’s 75th anniversary by standing on those cliffs of Normandy in a moving ceremony that was attended by scores of those boys of Pointe du Hoc, now in their 90s. Trump spoke directly to the aged veterans, honoring their heroic exploits by telling their stories. As Trump spoke, he revealed an attribute he had mostly kept hidden — that he could actually be impressively presidential.
“You are the pride of our nation,” he told the aged heroes seated behind him. “We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. … Those soldiers … know that they carried on their shoulders not just the pack of a soldier, but the fate of the world.”
In an understated and moving way, Trump recounted the exploits of several veterans who had braved the hailstorm of Nazi guns firing down from the cliffs. After each story, Trump left the microphones, embraced the veteran, then returned to tell us about the next one. If Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy, Bill Clinton or Barack Obama had done that, we’d be gushing about a great presidential communicator.
But Trump has spent his entire presidency making it difficult for even his admirers to know which Trump they are going to see — the rare presidential one or the other, more familiar, one. We all have seen unpresidential Trump: The Trump who ridicules a heroic U.S. veteran who was horribly tortured as a prisoner of war, but wouldn’t accept early release (because his father was famous) until his fellow POWs could leave with him. …
Indeed, just before his excellent presidential speech, Trump had stood at the hallowed Normandy cemetery and performed his political lambast as usual, telling Fox News that former special counsel Robert Mueller had “made such a fool of himself.” And saying of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: “I call her Nervous Nancy — she’s a disaster.” Sadly unpresidential.
Meanwhile, France’s President Emmanuel Macron was projecting presidential humility. “On behalf of my country,” he told Trump and the aged heroes, “I bow down and say thank you. … We know what we owe the United States of America.”
Watching that, I had a flashback. Decades ago, I witnessed history’s ultimate compelling moment when a famously never-humble French president displayed humble respect for an American president who had been his most important ally. It occurred late at night on March 30, 1969 — 25 years after Eisenhower ordered those boys to storm Pointe du Hoc. I was a young reporter standing with just a few people in the U.S. Capitol rotunda, where the body of President Eisenhower was lying in a flag-draped casket. Suddenly, in walked none other than France’s historic president, Gen. Charles de Gaulle.
Aged, wearing an overcoat and his iconic cylindrical military hat, the tall general walked slowly but ramrod straight; he stopped at the foot of Ike’s casket. I was staring at a real life snapshot of the entire condensed history of World War II. Proud and ever-austere, de Gaulle saluted. He held his salute for several minutes. It was de Gaulle’s silent tribute to the U.S. general who gave him back his country. And it was my chance to finally rewind and watch all the history I had missed.
Martin Schram is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service