President Bush paused in the middle of his own war and choked back tears yesterday as he dedicated the National World War II Memorial to his combat-decorated father and the 6 million others whose service he said "saved our country, and thereby saved the liberty of mankind."
"Men whose step has slowed are thinking of boys they knew when they were boys together," Bush said somberly, surrounded by billowing flags under a blue sky. "Women who watched the train leave, and the years pass, can still see the handsome face of their young sweetheart. America will not forget them, either."
The opening of the monument -- made of bronze and 17,000 pieces of granite, sandwiched on the Mall between memorials to America's founders and preservers -- allowed the president to bask in a rare collective moment for a nation that is split bitterly over politics.
The address also let Bush identify himself with a noncontroversial and ultimately successful conflict, at a time when public support for his handling of Iraq is plunging and the wisdom of the invasion is being widely questioned, even among Republicans. The president did not mention Iraq in his remarks.
Three generations of Bush's family sat onstage, including the president's daughter Barbara and his father, former president George H.W. Bush. The elder Bush bailed out of a flaming torpedo bomber south of Japan in 1944 after completing a strafing run under antiaircraft fire that proved fatal to his two crew members.
The commander in chief's voice cracked and his face looked strained as he told the Mall crowd of more than 100,000, "These were the modest sons of a peaceful country, and millions of us are very proud to call them 'Dad.' They gave the best years of their lives to the greatest mission their country ever accepted."
Bush ended by asking "every man and woman who saw and lived World War II -- every member of that generation -- to please rise as you are able, and receive the thanks of our great nation."
Stepping a pace back from the lectern, Bush led the applause for veterans stretched down the Mall farther than he could see. Some rose from wheelchairs, many with help. They were joined by tens of thousands who were watching via satellite at American Legion posts and Veterans of Foreign Wars halls in all the towns that produced the world's mightiest military.
The ceremony, televised live on five cable channels, was the first time Bush appeared in the same place with Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) since Kerry became his opponent for reelection.
Bush, a fighter pilot in the Texas Air National Guard who saw no combat, spoke for 15 minutes. Then he signed autographs and accepted waves of applause as he shook hands along the front row.
Kerry, awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts for heroics as a gunboat officer in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, was just a face in the crowd, off in the congressional section and invisible to those onstage.
The allegiance of veterans is being fought over in this race as in no other presidential contest. Both campaigns are devoting substantial cash and time to courting and organizing retired soldiers, pilots and aviators, swing state by swing state.
The Bush campaign has signed up 80,000 veterans and formed a group for Medal of Honor winners, claiming the endorsement of 49 of the 132 living recipients. Kerry's biographical ad even reminds viewers that he was born in a military hospital.
Kerry was accompanied to the ceremony by Joseph Lesniewski, one of the 18 living paratroopers from the Easy Company of the 101st Airborne Division -- whose members parachuted into enemy territory behind the Normandy beachhead on D-Day and were immortalized by the best-seller, "Band of Brothers."
The senator devoted the Democratic radio address to the generation that "fought for our freedom -- and the world's." In a jab at Bush, Kerry said, "America has always drawn its power not only from the might of its weapons, but from the trust and respect of nations around the globe."
Several Bush aides said they hope yesterday's event will launch a turnaround in his battered public image. These aides are counting on reminding voters of Bush's strengths with a series of commander in chief moments in June, including appearances at the 60th anniversary celebration of the D-Day landings in Normandy, France; two international summits; and several major speeches leading to the end of the U.S. occupation of Iraq on June 30.
As Bush looked out on a sea of faded ribbons and treasured pins, he saw a wheelchair at the end of many of the rows of chairs, with canes punctuating the front rows.
"Give 'em hell, George!" was the hearty front-row greeting from George X. Ferguson, 84, a former Army major who commanded battle patrols and launched mortar rounds in Tunisia, Italy, France and Germany. Like many in the audience, Ferguson was wearing a cap from his former unit, with his emblazoned "3rd Infantry Division -- Rock of the Marne."
Bush's remarks stressed the sacrifice involved in history's greatest war, at a time when the sacrifice in the war on terrorism is being borne by a relative few. "At this place, at this memorial, we acknowledge a debt of long standing to an entire generation of Americans: those who died; those who fought and worked and grieved and went on," he said.
Monument officials said it is intended as a tribute not only to the men and women who served in the armed forces in World War II, including the 400,000 who died, but also to the millions who supported the war effort from home.
"America gained strength because women labored for victory and factory jobs, cared for the wounded and wore the uniform, themselves," Bush said. "African Americans and Japanese Americans and others fought for their country, which wasn't always fair to them. In time, these contributions became expectations of equality, and the advances for justice in postwar America made us a better country."
Bush left unspoken, but included in his radio address yesterday, an explicit link between the ideals of World War II and his goals in Iraq. "Today, freedom faces new enemies, and a new generation of Americans has stepped forward to defeat them," he said in the radio address.
Bush will continue the three days devoted to veterans' activities on Sunday when he opens the South Portico of the White House to leaders of Rolling Thunder Inc., a group of motorcycle-riding veterans whose annual "Ride for Freedom" is designed to draw attention to prisoner-of-war and missing-in-action issues.
Bush will then make a phone call to the Ride for Freedom rally in Washington.
On Monday, he and first lady Laura Bush will lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.
Bush was preceded on the stage by former senator Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), who finally got to speak behind a lectern with a presidential seal. He called World War II "the defining event of the 20th century."
After Bush's remarks, he joined the crowd in the National Anthem and "God Bless America," then looked behind him just before the fighter-jet flyover roared into view.
Bush shook hands with his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who grasped him on the arm. Bush then took his father's arm, and they all turned briefly toward photographers, providing a tableau of the three most recent presidents.