The obscenities mount. The White House, searching for a Jewish survivor to accompany the president to Bitburg, was turned down by both Elie Wiesel and Simon Wiesenthal. It then asked American Jewish organizations for other names. Someone should suggest Al Goldstein, a publisher of pornography. As Macbeth did to sleep, Bitburg has murdered taste.
For instance, WABC-TV in New York seized upon the controversy to promote its anchorman, the handsome Bill Beutel, a survivor of many a ratings battle. In a full-page newspaper ad, it juxtaposed him with Elie Weisel, the not-so-pretty survivor of Auschwitz. The ad quotes Weisel as saying, "Our tradition commands us 'to speak the truth to power.'here to tell the truth." See, Goldstein? There are frontiers in bad taste still to be conquered.
Richard Nixon has weighed in. It is reported that he has furnished advice to the White House. The president would look weak if he changed his plans, Nixon reportedly intoned. The Soviets are watching for, you know, weakness, and a president of the United States cannot -- let me repeat -- cannot look weak. Reagan could change his plans, but it would be wrong.
Henry Kissinger has also told the president to hold firm. Another moralist heard from. Donald Regan, the White House chief of staff, says the president will be at Bitburg only 15 minutes or so, as much as an hour at Bergen- Belsen -- so what's the big deal? This is morality measured by the clock. Regan also reports the president is "anguished" and "wounded" by the criticism of his trip and cites his record of support for Israel and his empathy with Holocaust victims. Isn't he entitled to be insensitive just once?
West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, in an interview Time Magazine calls "revealing," "moving" and "emotional," confronts the moral issue of Bitburg by citing his steadfast support of American defense policies -- particularly the Pershing missiles -- and adds that in a couple of weeks the German draft will be extended. "Can you tell me what I am supposed to say to our soldiers when they ask me why they are asked to make this personal sacrifice?" Kohl asks. Yes. Tell them about the Russians. Now, Mr. Chancellor, here's a question for you? What does this have to do with Bitburg?
The issue -- the reason people are appalled by Reagan's plans to visit Bitburg -- has nothing to do with collective guilt, nothing to do with the present generation of Germans. Those are not contemporary Germans buried at Bitburg, or even a whole German nation. Those are 49 storm troopers. They are what they are -- Nazis. They represent the beasts who darkened the skies with the ashes of 6 million burning people. They deserve no honor from any American president. They deserve no honor from anyone.
The issue is said to be symbolic. But if it is symbolism we are dealing with, then what is the symbolism of honoring German war dead -- particularly Nazis? Is it supposed to mean that World War II is over? But we knew that. Is it supposed to mean that America and Germany are allies, friends? But everyone knows we are allies and friends. Is it supposed to mean that contemporary Germans cannot be held morally accountable for the crimes of the Nazi era? Of course they can't. They are as innocent as white Americans of owning slaves.
But a wreath-laying implies some sort of forgiveness, that what happened no longer really matters or that something else matters even more. That's where things go wrong. In the first place, forgiveness can come only from the victims. Most of them are dead, and the ones who live seem in no mood to forgive. And, secondly, to forgive implies that the original crime no longer matters when, in fact, it matters very much. To some, it is all that matters.
The president says otherwise. His message is that the Holocaust is not -- as some believe -- the central event of the 20th century, but just another reason for White House ceremonies. It is important, but it can be traded off, and with a bow toward veterans' groups and his good Jewish friends, he has pushed it aside.
The president is off to Bitburg. Nixon approves. Kissinger, too. It's only 15 minutes. Can't we find a Jew to say it's okay? Tell us the truth, Bill Beutel.
Goldstein, are you taking notes?