Their deaths, far from home, had become a flash point of politics in Washington, grist in the ongoing election-year debate about President Obama’s leadership at a time of uncertainty abroad. Yet on Friday afternoon, the bodies of the four Americans who perished in Libya arrived back on U.S. soil, and for a moment these men could be remembered for who they were in life, not what they had become in death.
Their coffins, each draped in an American flag, arrived at Andrews Air Force Base aboard a gray military aircraft and were carried down the ramp by seven Marines in dress blue uniforms. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three State Department employees — Sean Smith, an information management officer, and security personnel Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods — were killed Tuesday when militants overran the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.
Now, the men, as Obama would say during the formal Transfer of Remains ceremony, had come “home.” The coffins were placed in front of four black hearses inside a vast hangar, a giant flag hanging from the rafters. After a benediction was read, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, dressed in dark colors, took turns putting a face on the fallen before dozens of family, friends and State Department employees.
“Four Americans, four patriots,” said Obama, who had met privately with family members. “They had a mission, and they believed in it. They knew the danger, and they accepted it. They didn’t simply embrace the American ideal, they lived it, they embodied it: the courage, the hope and, yes, the idealism. That fundamental American belief that we can leave this world a little better than before.”
Welcoming home the remains of the dead is a grim duty for a president. And it is one that Obama has done several times for troops from Afghanistan. But it was never like this — in the middle of an election, in a fight for his political life.
Here they were: There was Smith, the technology wizard who Clinton said was mourned as widely by “gamers” online as he was in the halls of federal Washington. There was Doherty, known as “Bub,” and Woods, known as “ ’Rone,” both former Navy SEALs who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan before protecting America’s diplomats.
And there was Stevens, 52, who had worked closely with the Libyan people during their overthrow of strongman Moammar Gaddafi last year, then stayed on to help the new government rebuild. He became the first U.S. ambassador killed in the line of duty since 1979, but Clinton wanted her listeners to remember a man who was beloved not just by his co-workers but by the citizens of the foreign countries in which he served.
She told the audience that she had received a letter this week from the president of the Palestinian Authority, who had worked closely with Stevens in Jerusalem and remembered his “energy and integrity.”
“What a wonderful gift you gave us,” Clinton said, addressing Stevens’s family. The statesman was known “not only for his courage but for his smile — goofy but contagious. For his sense of fun, and that California cool.”
The mood was solemn and dignified. An Air Force band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and Obama put his left arm around Clinton briefly as they returned to their front-row seats next to Vice President Biden and other dignitaries. The coffins were moved into the hearses as the band played “America the Beautiful.”
It was a scene far removed from the chaos and violence of the streets in Benghazi and the noisy, discourteous debate on the presidential campaign trail, where the latest turn of the Arab Spring demonstrations had suddenly become Topic A.
In the wake of the deaths, Republican nominee Mitt Romney blasted Obama’s foreign policy and what Romney said was the administration’s eagerness, before denouncing the attack on Americans, to apologize for an anti-Muslim film that was blamed for sparking anger across the Middle East. Obama and his allies, along with some GOP leaders, quickly condemned Romney for politicizing the tragedy and inaccurately characterizing the White House’s response.
On Friday, Romney, campaigning in Painesville, Ohio, paused to lead a moment of silence for the slain Americans and delayed his stump speech until the ceremony at Andrews had concluded. He instructed his supporters to place their hands over their hearts “in recognition of the blood shed for freedom.”
Even amid the show of respect, however, politics loomed: Were the deaths related directly to fallout from the White House’s handling of the Arab unrest, a miscalculation of the anti-American anger still simmering in a part of the world shunted aside during a presidential campaign centered on domestic concerns?
That question will continue to be asked. But on Friday, Obama and Clinton used the memories of Stevens and his colleagues to reaffirm America’s commitment to lead, even in troubled times.
Obama recalled the image of a man in Benghazi holding a sign that read in English: “Chris Stevens was a friend to all Libyans.”
“That’s the message these four patriots sent,” Obama said. “That even as the voices of suspicion and mistrust seek to divide countries and cultures from one another, the United States of America will never retreat from the world.”
The Marines closed the rear doors of the hearses and saluted as the vehicles rolled out of the hangar to a plane that would carry the remains to another military base in Dover, Del.
The journey for the four men was almost over. The debate over their deaths has only begun.
Philip Rucker in Painesville, Ohio, and William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.