President Obama is skipping the traditional Memorial Day visit to Arlington National Cemetery, a move that has dismayed some veterans — and comes at a sensitive moment in the administration’s relationship with the military.
Instead of speaking at Arlington, as he did last year and as most presidents have done, Obama will appear at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery outside Chicago, the White House said. Vice President Biden will take his place at Arlington, the most prestigious military cemetery in the country and home to Section 60, a large burial ground for soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and executive director of the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, expressed disappointment at the White House move. “Arlington is hallowed ground, and the center of our nation’s attention on Memorial Day,” Rieckhoff said. “Unfortunately, President Obama and his family will not be there with us.”
Critics — mainly conservatives — have argued that attendance is more important with two wars ongoing. “Obama may talk about the government in the first person, but the men and women lying at Arlington know differently,” commentator Eric Erickson wrote on the conservative site Redstate.com. “Of course, Obama really doesn’t like the military, does he.” Fox News blared the headlines: “Trampling on Tradition?” and “Offensive to Soldiers?”
But other veterans say they’re not disturbed by Obama’s decision. “We don’t really see the big deal, so long as he’s taking the time to honor our fallen war heroes throughout Memorial Day weekend,” said Ryan Gallucci, spokesman for AMVETS. ” . . . Arlington is certainly not the only place our fallen heroes are buried, so why not pay your respects to veterans around the country?”
Steve Muro, the Department of Veterans Affairs acting undersecretary responsible for 131 national cemeteries, said Obama’s decision to visit a cemetery named for Lincoln is appropriate, since the 16th president established the country’s first 14 national cemeteries.
“I think the president is trying to show that there is more than one national cemetery,” Muro said.
Obama is not the first president to miss the Arlington ceremony. Ronald Reagan spoke at West Point one year, and went to his California ranch another year. George H.W. Bush, a war veteran, did not go at all. Bill Clinton, who did not serve in Vietnam and had a rocky time with the military, went to Arlington all eight years, and George W. Bush, who also avoided combat service in Vietnam, attended from 2003 onward.
His current support for ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” is not universally supported by the rank and file, but comes with backing from some top brass.
His most senior firing to date was retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair, who was pushed out as director of national intelligence last week, one of a handful of military members who have struggled in the highest ranks.