A Special Hanukkah Party

A few weeks back, I was pleasantly surprised (shocked would be more accurate) to have received an invitation to the annual White House Hanukkah Party, held this past Tuesday evening.  Scott Johnson of Powerline  has written a very good description of the event, and what transpired. There is no need to repeat that story. 

Clearly, the White House is aware of the increasing role of the blogosphere. Karl Rove'e eyes perked up when I mentioned The American Thinker. But there were some things about the event, beyond a picture with the President and the First Lady and seeing who else was there, which really made this very special.

Striking by their presence everywhere in the White House were smartly dressed Marines. This was not a security detail in the traditional sense (of course every guest had passed through a security line to enter), but an honor guard.  I spoke to several of the Marines. Serving in this detail was a special honor. It was a detail that the Marines applied for.  What could not have been clearer was how proud these men and women were to be serving, and to be there in the White House with their President that evening,

During the Viet Nam war, the US military (thanks to a draft) reached a size of 3.5 million. The national population during that era was in the range of 180 to 200 million, about two thirds of the current total. Today's armed forces are approximately 1.4 million, out of a national population of almost 300 million. The armed forces, which represented almost 2% of the American population in the late 60s, is now less than half a percent of the expanded population. The change in the size of the armed forces, and their sharply declining share of the general population means that many fewer American families have a son or daughter serving, and fewer Americans come into contact with those serving. 

Such separation leads, I think, to a certain incomprehension as to why young men and women might choose to serve. Some critics of the Administration and the war in Iraq like to point to the military as a dumping ground of sorts, a collection of society's losers who could not find jobs in the general society. This is nonsense and deeply insulting to those who serve. There is a tradition of national service for many in the military that some Americans simply do not comprehend, as they race up the success ladder in more lucrative fields. One does not 'support our troops' when one looks down on those who serve,  and thinks that the military is the only place that is really available for "these people."  For the great majority who serve, the military is a choice, not their only option.  Many are immensely capable people with character to spare. They compare very favorably, I think, to many of those we normally think of as the 'winners' in our society.

Several writers have described how the military and their families are today more isolated from the rest of the population than during previous wars. Some Americans have their only contact with the military when they see the faces of the soldiers who died in a newspaper story every time the total death toll in Iraq hits some nice round number. 

What could not be clearer is that this President is very comfortable around military personnel, and deeply respects their service to the country and the sacrifices that have been made.  He has not publicized his and the First Lady's visits with hundreds of families who have lost a loved one, nor has he made their many visits to Walter Reed to visit the injured soldiers into photo opportunities. But the Soldiers know.

At the White House Hanukkah Party, the glee club was the West Point Jewish Cadet Choir. The band was a military band.  Lots of other singing groups and bands could have been found, had the President sought them.  If you wanted to mix with the military and talk to them, they were everywhere this special night.  Even a brief conversation made it obvious that these men and women were both proud to serve their country and humbled by the honor of serving.

A second thing that I came away with this night had to do with the role of prayer and study and the respect for religion in the White House. Many of those who hate the President do so because they are very uncomfortable with the role of religion in his life — that he is a born again Christian, and that he is not afraid to speak about his faith.  Since President Bush's belief system is very different from the secular progressive vision (that of the New York Times editorial page), and that of the elites who pledge allegiance to that vision, an increasing emphasis on religion by the President is seen as a very dangerous thing by these secular elites. Some prominent rabbis have grown nervous that a new Christian tide emanating from the White House and the President's supporters in the evangelical community will sweep over and change America  (for the worse of course), since serious devout Christians are very dangerous people.

On line to get into the White House, I spoke to a rabbi from Maryland who has for several years conducted Torah study groups in the White House for Jewish employees. I suspect that the fact that this goes on  is not widely known, and that it is a new phenomenon in the White House. The President has brought to the White House a respect for those who believe and pray and study, rather than a secularist's scorn for religious observance. And this respect is not limited to Christian believers. The President held a one hour session with Jewish  educators the day of the Hanukkah party. This was not just to light the White House menorah, but included a serious discussion of education issues, as well as Israel and the situation in the Middle East.  As Scott Johnson related, the attendees were very heartened by what they heard. For the first time ever, the White House kitchen was officially certified as kosher for an event.

Great respect for ceremony and tradition, whether military or religious, is apparent in this White House.

I have never heard the President attack those who are not religious believers. He understands that this too is a belief system. And those who are not religious believers nor observant are not under pressure to become more religious in the White House. I doubt, though, that there is a New York Times study group in the White House just yet, though it really takes a lot of faith to believe what is in that paper. 

Richard Baehr is the chief political correspondent of The American Thinker.