Biden celebrates D-Day by evoking Reagan and contrasting him with Trump

The 80th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of France on June 6, 1944, was a moment to pause and pay tribute to the courage and sacrifice of those who stormed the beaches and scaled the cliffs of Normandy to liberate Europe and the world from the clutches of fascism.

U.S. presidents regularly visit these beaches and the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, including Biden’s visit on Friday. The lush, windswept, undulating landscape is where German bunkers and artillery batteries stood as deadly obstacles to invading Army Rangers, suffering huge casualties in the first hours of the battle.

Presidents have come here primarily to commemorate and honor these heroes, most memorably President Ronald Reagan on the 40th anniversary in 1984. President Reagan captured what had happened at the start of that day in four short sentences: “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc,” he told an audience that included 62 men there. “They are the men who held the cliffs. They are the champions who helped liberate a continent. They are the heroes who helped end the war.”

On every major anniversary, presidents have spoken reverently of the price of freedom, the suffering of those who fought and died, and the debt the world owes them — and of the lessons the Allied war effort taught a world then — that has changed, and changed, in the decades since.

In a 1984 speech, President Reagan warned about the dangers of isolationism and the importance of preparing for threats. At the time, tensions were running high for nuclear war, and he was focused on winning the Cold War against what he called the “evil empire”: the Soviet Union.

A decade later, after the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union had collapsed, Bill Clinton had hopeful words for this new world, which would ultimately be fleeting. “Devastated during the war, then locked in Communism and the Cold War, Russia has been reborn in democracy,” he said that day. “And as freedom bells ring from Prague to Kiev, the liberation of this continent is nearly complete.”

Now Russian democracy is gone and Kiev is under attack. Russian President Vladimir Putin was among the foreign leaders who attended the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings in 2014, just months after he ordered the annexation of Crimea, part of a shift that culminated in a full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago. Last week, Putin was an unwelcome and uninvited guest in France, but in everyone’s minds he was the face of tyranny and the focus of President Biden’s speech.

On Friday, Biden returned to Pointe du Hoc, where Reagan stood in 1984. Behind him was a stone obelisk marking the location of a German artillery battery atop the cliffs. Beyond him was a cloudless, calm view of the English Channel, a stark contrast to the wind and choppy seas that wreaked havoc on the morning of June 6, 1944.

The landscape above the beaches of Normandy is not a place of politics, and yet there is always politics in the background of the President’s speech on the Normandy landings, politics that are both international and national.

When President Reagan spoke in 1984, he was in the midst of a landslide reelection campaign. His Normandy landings speech became one of the iconic moments for a president who will go down in history as a great communicator rather than a direct contributor to that victory.

When President George W. Bush marked the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landings in 2004, he was campaigning for reelection at a time when opposition to the US invasion of Iraq was growing. His speech largely excluded morality and focused on the brave soldiers who had landed on those shores.

Biden also faces an uphill reelection campaign. His visit to France has long been seen by his advisers as one of the key dates on the calendar: a moment of maximum attention for the U.S. president and a chance to deliver a message that will resonate more widely than a typical election campaign. Though Biden spoke to an international audience and as the leader of a Western democracy, his focus was domestic, as was made clear near the end of his Pointe du Hoc speech, which began with the sentence, “My fellow Americans…”

Biden came to France with the express purpose of contrasting himself with former President Donald Trump, but without mentioning him by name. Of course, he did so to honor the past, as other presidents have done, and to walk through the Normandy American Cemetery, a 172-acre waterfront site where more than 9,000 Americans who died in the war are buried. Biden came to France to remember the heroism of the living and the dead.

Ironically, however, Biden’s other aim was to support Reagan and counter Trump. In the current political turmoil, Biden’s internationalism has much more in common with Reagan and the Republican Party of 40 years ago than Trump’s “America First” philosophy, which questions alliances, leans toward authoritarian leaders and signals a retreat from global leadership. Biden’s connection to Reagan clearly has its limitations, but for at least a moment, the current president was able to find common ground with a man who was his political opponent when he was a senator and Reagan was in the White House.

Biden’s speech at the cemetery on Thursday focused on Russia’s war against Ukraine, where he cited the “enduring unity of our allies” from the experience of World War II.

“What the Confederacy accomplished 80 years ago was far more than we could have accomplished on our own,” he said. “It was a powerful demonstration of how alliances, true alliances, make us stronger, and it’s a lesson we as Americans must never forget.”

Europe is now focused on the US elections, with many fearing what a re-elected Trump would mean for its allies. Biden and European leaders are concerned about Russian advances in Ukraine and the potential fraying of the alliance that has supported Ukraine. Biden did not need to state that Trump disrespected NATO and could dramatically weaken it if re-elected, as that was already amply documented.

Biden is standing in a tradition dating back to the end of World War II that honors the importance of the transatlantic alliance and America’s role in leading the world. “America’s unique ability to bring nations together is an undeniable source of our strength and power,” he said. “Isolationism was not the answer 80 years ago and it is not the answer today.”

Compare this to President Reagan’s words in 1984, pointing to America in the 1930s and the strong isolationist tendencies of the time: “We have learned that isolationism has never been, and never will be, an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with expansionist intent,” Reagan said.

In a 2014 speech, Barack Obama described Normandy as “a frontline outpost of democracy,” but democracy and the threats it faces were at the center of Biden’s speech at Pointe du Hoc on Friday. He noted that none of the 225 people who scaled the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc are still alive today, and urged everyone to “hear the echoes of their voices.”

“They’re not asking us to scale these cliffs, they’re asking us to stay true to our American ideals,” he said. “They’re not asking us to sacrifice or risk our lives, they’re asking us to care about other people at home before ourselves. They’re not asking us to do their job, they’re asking us to do our job, which is to defend the freedoms of our time, to defend our democracy, to stand up against aggression at home and abroad, to be part of something bigger than ourselves.”

Democracy isn’t easy, he says. “American democracy asks the hardest thing of all, which is to believe that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves,” he says. “So democracy starts with each of us. Democracy starts when one person decides that there’s something bigger than themselves.”

Meanwhile, at home, Trump missed an opportunity to shift focus away from the politics of retribution he has long championed, telling “Dr. Phil” McGraw, “Revenge takes time. I’ll admit that. And sometimes revenge is justified. And sometimes it is justified, Phil, to be honest with you.”

In their own ways, Biden and Trump once again present a contrast and voters’ choice in November’s election.

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