WASHINGTON, D.C. – A question Americans should answer for themselves is the one I am thinking through while standing at the National World War II Memorial on the Washington Mall this week. What kind of president doesn’t do everything he can to ensure that the elderly American men in wheelchairs I see before me don’t have access to “their” memorial – even during a government shutdown?
And when I say “their” memorial, I am not only referring to their World War II veteran status. This memorial cost $182 million to build; $197 million was raised privately (the extra money remains in a memorial fund). This nongovernment money came not only from corporations and wealthy individuals, but also from a long list of veterans groups. Naturally, hefty donations came from the big national organizations, such as Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans. On the memorial website, however, you will also find listed scores of smaller donors, including the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, Anzio Beachhead Veterans, U.S. Submarine Veterans of WWII, WWII Glider Pilots Association and many more.
So, again, what kind of commander in chief permits government barricades to go up around the privately funded World War II Memorial, even as he is informed that long-scheduled and privately funded Honor Flights of these aged veterans are arriving to visit their memorial? (Thanks not to the president, but to the on-site intervention of Republican lawmakers, including Reps. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas; Bill Huizenga, R-Mich.; Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.; Steve King, R-Iowa; Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mich.; and others, these visits have been going on as planned.)
This is no idle question to contemplate in the midst of the impasse between Democrats and Republicans in Washington. In some ways, it goes to the symbolic heart of the matter.
The World War II Memorial, to my eye, is no beauty. It is a stone plaza, almost a giant sidewalk (and thus wheelchair accessible) that is open to sun and sky and visitors 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. To “shut” this open plaza for the first time, National Park Service employees actually had to assemble barricades (the ones that look like bike racks) and yellow police tape to block access around it. “What are they going to do next?” asked Rep. Gohmert. “Hang a drapery over Mount Rushmore?”
More importantly, this was no bureaucratic snafu in which these long-scheduled visits were somehow overlooked. The Daily Caller reported that Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., asked the White House, the National Park Service, the Department of the Interior and the Capitol Police to ensure that the vets would have free access to the memorial. Palazzo was rejected everywhere. “We got the heads up that they will be barricaded and specifically asked for an exception for these heroes,” Palazzo told the Daily Caller’s Charles C. Johnson. “We were denied and told, ‘It’s a government shutdown, what do you expect?'”
Um, open access at the World War II Memorial to the people who both fought the war and built the site.
Once upon a lifetime ago, these seniors were “the boys of Pointe du Hoc.” They took Iwo Jima, yard by bloody yard. They were Screaming Eagles, Pathfinders, Hellcats, all-American G.I.s who came by the hundreds, by the tens of thousands, from every farm town and big city in America to fight Nazism in Europe and Imperial Japan in the Pacific. Once, they could scale cliffs, jump from planes and earn medals. Now, seven decades later, they walk slowly or need wheelchairs, their navy blue ball caps emblazoned with the name of their naval ships or battle. Long ago, they earned our eternal gratitude and respect, and no government of any political stripe or party should ever forget it.
But this is exactly what the Obama White House and the Democratic Party have done. In producing political theatrics to depict the budget impasse over defunding socialized medicine (Obamacare) vs. funding the government as tea party-Ted-Cruz-engendered disappointment with penalties for all, they have abandoned even these very special Americans. It’s unthinkable that any government would dishonor its veterans this way. It’s not only that there was no need, no call to barricade the World War II Memorial. That a government would do such a thing shows it has no concept of what it means to be Americans with common bonds and a common past.
The way the Obama administration treats these men doesn’t bode well for the rest of us. Meanwhile, who would have imagined that now, with their span nearly complete, these same men would have to stand for freedom one more time – but this time against their own government?