To fully understand the self-inflicted damage of President Reagan's visit to Bitburg, one must go beyond the blow-by-blow of public relations blunders and examine his central role in the decision-making process.
Reagan has not become the "Great Communicator" by accident. In addition to the assets of his voice and long-practiced speaking technique, Reagan has an intuitive grasp of public opinion and the ability to identify with the aspirations of his countrymen.
Americans tend to hold an idealistic view of national goals and human potential. This optimism finds a deep resonance in Reagan, whose life has been marked by achievement and who still believes that the nation's best days lie ahead.
Reagan's best speeches, both when he was a Democratic liberal and now as a Republican conservative, have been life-affirming. He sees the United States, in Abraham Lincoln's phrase that he has appropriated for his own use, as the "last best hope of mankind." He sees humanity, in the words of his 1984 campaign speeches, as "reaching for the stars."
Reagan never has been comfortable in scenes that contradict his affirmations. Both as actor and as politician, he has valued heroism and shunned tragedies. When he visits cemeteries, it is to celebrate heroism, not to mourn the dead.
On one memorable occasion during the 1980 campaign, Reagan was taken by his advance man to the courtyard of an Indiana nursing home. Before him, in wheelchairs, was an audience of elderly persons who displayed little animation or interest in their guest.
Reagan, usually at ease, was nonplused. He started to talk about his midwestern boyhood, then about challenges that lay ahead. But he was too distracted by his audience to finish his speech. Nancy Reagan stepped in and gently concluded the talk for her husband, then led him away.
The most revealing aspect of the Bitburg story was not Reagan's insistence on going to a German military cemetery but his original refusal to visit a concentration-camp site after years of saying that the Holocaust must never be forgotten. If Nancy Reagan opposed the concentration camp stop, as some officials said, it was because she recognized how uncomfortable her husband would be at the site of such awful remembrance.
Whatever her role, Reagan's unwillingness was evident from the outset. After a stop at the Dachau camp had been proposed by the West German government and was on the State Department itinerary, Reagan told White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan and deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver, who was in charge of advance arrangements, that he didn't want to go.
Regan was new on the job and didn't know what to do. Deaver did what he was told and eliminated Dachau from the itinerary. At Reagan's last news conference, March 21, he spoke his true feelings when he said visiting a concentration-camp site would mean "reawakening the memories" of World War II.
Last year in Normandy for the commemoration of the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944, Reagan did not mind these memories. Normandy had its share of death and horrors, but heroic themes predominated. Optimism does not come so easily within the shadow of a concentration camp, the ultimate expression of man's inhumanity to man.
Reagan was not candid about reasons for his backtracking decision after the furor over the Bitburg visit compelled him to add the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp site to his itinerary. His statement that he originally considered the West German invitation to visit Dachau a private one does not square with his advisers' accounts.
But Reagan may have understood intuitively that the Germans weren't all that keen about a concentration-camp visit. U.S. officials and members of a delegation from the Simon Wiesenthal Center who were in West Germany in early February to arrange ceremonies commemorating the Holocaust detected concerns that the left could exploit the ceremonies for a demonstration against U.S. missiles in Europe that would embarrass Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government.
The West Germans included a concentration-camp site on the original itinerary apparently because they believed that such a stopover would be a political necessity for Reagan. They turned out to be correct.
Reaganism of the Week: Asked last Monday if he were aware of the Nazi SS massacre of the residents of the French village of Oradour, Reagan, who served in the Army making training films, said: "Yes, I know all the bad things that happened in that war. I was in uniform four years myself."