Obama, Reagan, and the Nazi Death Camps

What do Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama have in common?   Visits to a concentration camp to soothe Jewish sensibilities

Next week, after a stop in Cairo to address the Muslim world and another stop in Saudi Arabia to discuss Mideast conflicts with King Abdullah, President Obama will head to France to join in commemorative events in Normandy on the 65th anniversary of D-Day and to Germany for a visit to Buchenwald.

Why add a visit to a Nazi concentration camp?  In part, because Obama startled many Jews for NOT adding Israel to his itinerary.  After all, if you're in Cairo, how long does it take to get to Jerusalem?

And also in part, I suspect, to reassure his Jewish base in the U.S. (78 percent of American Jews voted for him -- more than any other minority group, except African-Americans)  As the president and his secretary of state keep pounding Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on West Bank settlements and twisting his arm to accept Obama's vision of Palestinian statehood, the White House apparently felt that a visit to Buchenwald would be just the right ticket to allay Jewish and Israeli concerns, especially since Obama seems to put an overarching priority on getting into the good graces of the Muslim world.

The president, however, would like the world to believe that he's going to visit Buchenwald not for any political reasons, but because his great-uncle, Charles Payne, 84, was one of the GIs who liberated the concentration camp.

Except that great-uncle Charlie has just demolished that pretense by telling the German magazine, Der Spiegel, that his great-nephew is going to Buchenwald for "political reasons." Period.

Payne said Obama never showed interest in his wartime activities except when it suited him during last year's campaign to establish a family link with the liberation of Buchenwald.  Actually, as Payne recalled, Obama at first claimed that great-uncle Charlie helped liberate Auschwitz, but then had to correct himself when it was pointed out to him that Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army.

So where's the parallel with Ronald Reagan?  As history would have it, Reagan's need for a fall-back visit to a concentration camp also has a D-Day angle.

In 1984, Reagan and other allied leaders journeyed to Normandy to commemorate the 40th anniversary of D-Day.  Reagan's good friend, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, was greatly offended for not having been invited, feeling that after several decades as a loyal member of the post-war Western alliance, West Germany should have been included.  And at his next meeting with Reagan, Kohl practically shed tears to let the president know how slighted he felt.

To make amends, Reagan agreed that since he would be in West Germany for a G-7 summit in Bonn the following year, he would join the chancellor at an event marking German-Allied reconciliation.  Thus, Reagan was entrapped to travel in 1985 to a military cemetery in Bitburg to formally recognize West Germany as a fully rehabilitated democracy in good standing with Washington and the Allies.

Snow covered the graves in the cemetery when the White House advance party scouted the site.  At least, that was the excuse given by some Reagan aides for not spotting some graves of members of the Waffen SS -- Hitler's execution squads during the Holocaust.

When their presence became known, all hell broke loose.  Jewish and veterans' organizations asked Reagan to cancel his Bitburg visit. For several weeks before the trip "What about Bitburg" became a familiar press refrain at the White House.  But Reagan, having given his word to Kohl, refused to back down.  In hopes of muting criticism, the White House added a stop at Bergen-Belsen.

So those of us who were White House correspondents at the time covered Reagan's visit to the death camp in the morning and his let-by-gones-be-bygones visit to the Bitburg cemetery in the afternoon.

Going to Bergen-Belsen didn't help Reagan, however.   For evermore the trip was associated with the most memorable faux pas of his White House tenure, while Bergen-Belsen became all but forgotten.   Now, with Great-Uncle Charlie spilling the beans about Great-Nephew Barack about to use Buchenwald as a political stunt, it looks as if Obama may not get any rewards either for visiting a German concentration camp.

Poetic justice in both cases.
What do Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama have in common?   Visits to a concentration camp to soothe Jewish sensibilities

Next week, after a stop in Cairo to address the Muslim world and another stop in Saudi Arabia to discuss Mideast conflicts with King Abdullah, President Obama will head to France to join in commemorative events in Normandy on the 65th anniversary of D-Day and to Germany for a visit to Buchenwald.

Why add a visit to a Nazi concentration camp?  In part, because Obama startled many Jews for NOT adding Israel to his itinerary.  After all, if you're in Cairo, how long does it take to get to Jerusalem?

And also in part, I suspect, to reassure his Jewish base in the U.S. (78 percent of American Jews voted for him -- more than any other minority group, except African-Americans)  As the president and his secretary of state keep pounding Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on West Bank settlements and twisting his arm to accept Obama's vision of Palestinian statehood, the White House apparently felt that a visit to Buchenwald would be just the right ticket to allay Jewish and Israeli concerns, especially since Obama seems to put an overarching priority on getting into the good graces of the Muslim world.

The president, however, would like the world to believe that he's going to visit Buchenwald not for any political reasons, but because his great-uncle, Charles Payne, 84, was one of the GIs who liberated the concentration camp.

Except that great-uncle Charlie has just demolished that pretense by telling the German magazine, Der Spiegel, that his great-nephew is going to Buchenwald for "political reasons." Period.

Payne said Obama never showed interest in his wartime activities except when it suited him during last year's campaign to establish a family link with the liberation of Buchenwald.  Actually, as Payne recalled, Obama at first claimed that great-uncle Charlie helped liberate Auschwitz, but then had to correct himself when it was pointed out to him that Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army.

So where's the parallel with Ronald Reagan?  As history would have it, Reagan's need for a fall-back visit to a concentration camp also has a D-Day angle.

In 1984, Reagan and other allied leaders journeyed to Normandy to commemorate the 40th anniversary of D-Day.  Reagan's good friend, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, was greatly offended for not having been invited, feeling that after several decades as a loyal member of the post-war Western alliance, West Germany should have been included.  And at his next meeting with Reagan, Kohl practically shed tears to let the president know how slighted he felt.

To make amends, Reagan agreed that since he would be in West Germany for a G-7 summit in Bonn the following year, he would join the chancellor at an event marking German-Allied reconciliation.  Thus, Reagan was entrapped to travel in 1985 to a military cemetery in Bitburg to formally recognize West Germany as a fully rehabilitated democracy in good standing with Washington and the Allies.

Snow covered the graves in the cemetery when the White House advance party scouted the site.  At least, that was the excuse given by some Reagan aides for not spotting some graves of members of the Waffen SS -- Hitler's execution squads during the Holocaust.

When their presence became known, all hell broke loose.  Jewish and veterans' organizations asked Reagan to cancel his Bitburg visit. For several weeks before the trip "What about Bitburg" became a familiar press refrain at the White House.  But Reagan, having given his word to Kohl, refused to back down.  In hopes of muting criticism, the White House added a stop at Bergen-Belsen.

So those of us who were White House correspondents at the time covered Reagan's visit to the death camp in the morning and his let-by-gones-be-bygones visit to the Bitburg cemetery in the afternoon.

Going to Bergen-Belsen didn't help Reagan, however.   For evermore the trip was associated with the most memorable faux pas of his White House tenure, while Bergen-Belsen became all but forgotten.   Now, with Great-Uncle Charlie spilling the beans about Great-Nephew Barack about to use Buchenwald as a political stunt, it looks as if Obama may not get any rewards either for visiting a German concentration camp.

Poetic justice in both cases.