Twenty years ago, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, Ronald Reagan took Normandy by storm.
In the highlight of a series of made-for-television appearances that were emblematic of his theatrical presidency, Reagan gave an elegiac speech at Pointe du Hoc, where U.S. Army Rangers had scaled a 130-foot knife-shaped cliff with grappling hooks and ladders borrowed from the London Fire Department.
Speaking to moist-eyed veterans of this daring achievement before a stone memorial that honored them, Reagan said: "Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war."
Later that day Reagan and his wife, Nancy, toured the Normandy American Cemetery, where white crosses and Stars of David mark the graves of 9,386 U.S. servicemen who died in the Allied invasion of France and its aftermath. He gave another evocative speech at Omaha Beach, reading from the letter of the daughter of a veteran who had survived the assault. Fulfilling a promise to her father, she had returned that day to put flowers on the graves.
Reagan's performance in Normandy demonstrated the timing, dramatic sense and attention to detail for which the White House staff was famous during his presidency. The French, as hosts of the commemorative events, had wanted Reagan to be welcomed by President Francois Mitterrand before he gave a speech on French soil. But this would have delayed the event until after the morning television shows, conceding them to coverage of the Democratic presidential primary in California on June 5. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, the maestro of the D-Day production, called in the French ambassador and reminded him that Mitterrand had been warmly received by the president in Washington earlier that year. The French moved up the ceremony to accommodate the U.S. timing.
The power of Reagan's performance was on display this weekend in television specials across the nation that paid tribute to the 40th president, who died Saturday at 93. Clips from the Pointe du Hoc speech, written by Peggy Noonan, decorated many of these programs. President Bush, tracing similar ground in Normandy at a time when the United States is engaged in a conflict in Iraq, was eclipsed by recollections of Reagan's celebratory visit. Nor did his staff find the French as accommodating as they were two decades ago. Bush's commemorative D-Day speech was aired in the United States in the middle of the night.
Reagan's speeches in Normandy, part of a 10-day trip that included a sentimental visit to his ancestral home of Ballyporeen, Ireland, and an economic summit in London, were more than good theater. They were pivotal for him politically in a reelection year that had begun badly. The economy was booming after a severe recession as the ever-optimistic Reagan had predicted, but no one knew how long it would last. In February, under pressure from the public and his defense secretary, Reagan had withdrawn U.S. troops from Lebanon, where, on October 23, 1983, 241 sleeping U.S. servicemen, most of them Marines, were killed by a suicide bomber who drove an explosives-laden truck into a Marine headquarters building in Beirut.
Memory of the Lebanon disaster, which Reagan called "the saddest day of my presidency, the saddest day of my life," was partly diminished by the successful invasion of Grenada after a group of renegades killed the Marxist premier and caused a crisis in the Caribbean. After U.S. troops were withdrawn from Lebanon, the White House embarked on an ambitious political campaign to celebrate national achievements at home and abroad. In April, Reagan visited China, where he extolled the merits of freedom.
Some of Reagan's adversaries derided his foreign forays as empty symbolism. Reagan and his staff were unfazed. Although Reagan denied in an interview with Irish television that he was visiting his ancestral homeland for political purposes, his chief of staff, James A. Baker III, had no difficulty in acknowledging the political component. "We have a bilateral relationship with an important ally, and there are 40 million Americans of Irish descent," Baker said. "Why should we apologize for this symbolism?"
In fact, as Baker also insisted, Reagan's trip was substantive as well as symbolic. Although Reagan blamed the Soviet Union for world tensions in a speech in Galway, his speech at Pointe du Hoc took note of the immense Soviet contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany. He said that the "terrible price" paid by the Russian people in World War II testified to the necessity of avoiding war. "In truth, there is no reconciliation we would welcome more than a reconciliation with the Soviet Union, so together we can lessen the risks of war, now and forever," Reagan said.
This passage foreshadowed the U.S.-Soviet summitry on which Reagan would embark the next year after Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader. Another foreshadowing occurred the next day, June 7, 1984, in London, where the Soviets quietly informed U.S. officials that Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov was alive and well. Two days later the seven industrial democracies patched up political differences, and issued a declaration opposing international terrorism and expressing "solidarity and resolve" in dealing with the Soviet Union.
Reagan's performances on the world stage, especially in Normandy, contributed to his "Morning Again in America" reelection campaign, which in dreamy television commercials made effective use of his D-Day and other foreign speeches. "In retrospect the election was over by June 6," Michael Barone wrote in "Our Country: The Shaping of America From Roosevelt to Reagan." Reagan, who trailed Democrat Walter F. Mondale in the polls early in 1984, won every jurisdiction except Minnesota and the District of Columbia in one of the most monumental political landslides in history.
The makings of that landslide were evident in Reagan's soaring speech at Pointe du Hoc.