The newspapers sometimes said that President Reagan's decision to visit the German military cemetery at Bitburg had upset Jews and American veterans' organizations. Sometimes they said it was American Jews and American veterans' organizations and sometimes it was just Jews. In an era of specialization, moral outrage is limited to spokesmen for victims. We all have our assignments.
In this particular issue, veteran organizations have been assigned the job of protecting the memory of dead servicemen. Their obligation is to appear in their campaign hats on morning television and remind a nation with car pool on the mind that the men buried at Bitburg had killed Americans.
Jewish organizations have their special plea also. They have tried very hard to tell the viewing audience that the Holocaust was not a unique Jewish event, like the destruction of the Biblical temple, but mass murder -- people killing people. That most of the victims were Jews is beside the point, although for many Jews and non-Jews alike that's precisely the point. For some, the Holocaust has become an exclusively Jewish affair.
Commentators say that Ronald Reagan has stumbled badly on this issue. Maybe. But Reagan's public relations pratfall is not all that evident. It seems that veterans are concerned with the military dead and Jews with the civilian dead and the rest of America is content to watch. What has all of this to do with them?
Probably the worst part of the whole controversy about Reagan's trip to Germany is his failure to answer that question. In fact, it was his apparent willingness to see the issue as a controversy in the first place that has cost him, and us, so dearly. From the very beginning, he has taken the odd view that it was not possible in the same trip to address the memory of the Holocaust and to reaffirm German-American friendship. It is as if one precluded the other when, in fact, one is built upon the other. We could not be friends with a Germany that treated the Holocaust like a dotty aunt -- not to be mentioned.
In fact, it was this willingness to put German sensitivities on one side of the scale and (mostly) Jewish sensitivities on the other that was, in the end, so distasteful. The issue then became not one of justice or morality, of remembering history and learning from it, of honoring the survivors and their constant pain, but of numbers and alliances -- NATO and Star Wars and Pershing missiles. In a way, this was an echo of the very mentality that is associated with the Holocaust itself -- a hierarchy of heartless priorities where always there was something more important than the fate of Jews being killed by Nazis, something, that is, more important than morality itself.
That is what comes from the Wite House now. That is the unstated theme -- this deference to exaggerated German sensibilities, this determination to treat injured Jews and outraged veterans as special-interest groups seeking a permit for a parade. It is as if they are lobbying for some special advantage and not for what's right.
It is the obligation of a president to unify. In this case, it is the obligation of the president to tell the nation why the concerns of Jews and veterans are the concerns of all Americans. His obligation is to instruct, to take what seems like the stuff of special-interest politics and with it construct a monument to American morality -- a statement of who we are as a people, what we cherish, why American soldiers died during World War II and why the Holocaust was not something Germans did to Jews, but something people did to people. It diminished us all.
Now that statement is hopelessly muddled, and Reagan goes to Germany as a president representing something less than all his people. It is still not too late to change matters, to cancel the trip to Bitburg and substitute something else. The president could honor the German anti-Nazi movement. He could toast the Germany of Hegel and Beethoven, of Einstein and Weill -- the towering culture of the past and the promise of the future. To salute such a nation, a president must first unify his own. This is now Ronald Reagan's obligation.
We all have our assignments.