Analysis | Biden marks D-Day by channeling Reagan and contrasting with Trump

The events marking the 80th anniversary of D-Day — the invasion of France by Allied forces on June 6, 1944 — provided a moment to pause and pay tribute to the courage and sacrifice of those who stormed the Normandy beaches and climbed the cliffs to liberate Europe and the world from the grip of fascism.

American presidents have been regular visitors to those beaches and to the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, as President Biden was on Friday. The grassy, windswept, uneven piece of ground is where German bunkers and gun emplacements stood as deadly obstacles against the invading Army Rangers amid enormous casualties in the first hours of the battle.

The presidents have come primarily to commemorate and salute those heroes — most memorably Ronald Reagan at the 40th anniversary in 1984. Reagan captured in four short sentences what happened beginning that day. “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc,” he said to an audience that included 62 of the men who had been there. “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.”

At every major anniversary, presidents have spoken with reverence about the cost of freedom, the suffering of those who fought and died, and the debt the world owes them. They have also talked about the lessons that the Allied effort in the war offered for the world as it stood at that moment, a world that has changed and changed again in the decades since.

When Reagan spoke in 1984, he warned about the dangers of isolationism and the importance of readiness in the face of threats. At a time of nuclear tension, he was focused on winning the Cold War against the Soviet Union, what he called “the evil empire.”

Ten years later, after the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union had collapsed, Bill Clinton spoke hopefully about this new world, fleeting as it turned out to be. “Russia, decimated during the war and frozen afterward in communism and cold war, has been reborn in democracy,” he said that day. “And as freedom rings from Prague to Kyiv, the liberation of this continent is nearly complete.”

Today, democracy in Russia is gone and Kyiv is under attack. Russian President Vladimir Putin was among the foreign leaders in attendance in 2014, at the 70th anniversary of D-Day, but that was just months after he had ordered the annexation of Crimea. The takeover of Crimea was a part of a turn that two years ago became a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This past week, Putin was an unwanted and uninvited attendee in France, though present as the face of tyranny in the minds of everyone and a focus of Biden’s oratory.

On Friday, Biden returned to Pointe du Hoc, to the place where Reagan had stood in 1984. Behind him was the stone obelisk that marks the spot of the German guns at the top of the cliffs. Beyond him was a view of the English Channel, calm and serene on a near-cloudless day, unlike the winds and rough seas that brought havoc to the Allied forces on the morning of June 6, 1944.

The landscape above the beaches of Normandy is not a place for politics, and yet politics is always part of the backdrop of presidential D-Day speeches, politics that is both international and domestic.

When Reagan spoke in 1984, he was in the midst of a reelection campaign that ended in a landslide victory. His D-Day speech may have contributed little directly to that victory, but it became one of the iconic moments for a president whom history remembers as the great communicator.

When George W. Bush marked the 60th anniversary of D-Day in 2004, he was engaged in a reelection campaign at a time when opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq was growing. His speech was largely shorn of lessons and more tightly focused on the brave military personnel who had landed on the beaches.

Biden, too, faces a difficult reelection campaign. His trip to France has long been seen by advisers as one of the key dates on the calendar, a moment when there is maximum attention focused on the U.S. president and an opportunity to deliver a message that can resonate more widely than typical campaign appearances. Though he spoke to an international audience and as the leader of the Western democracies, his focus was back home, which was revealed near the close of his speech at Pointe du Hoc, when he began a sentence with, “My fellow Americans …”

Biden went to France with the explicit purpose of drawing a contrast with former president Donald Trump, though without invoking his name. He was there of course to honor the past, to walk, as other presidents have walked, the grounds of the Normandy American Cemetery, a 172-acre plot at water’s edge where more than 9,000 Americans who died in the war are buried. He was in France to recall the heroism of the living and the dead.

But one of his other objectives was, ironically, to stand with Reagan and against Trump. In the turbulence of current-day politics, Biden’s internationalism has far more in common with Reagan and the Republican Party of 40 years ago than with Trump’s “America First” doctrine that questions alliances, bends toward authoritarian leaders and points to an American retreat from leadership in the world. The Biden-Reagan connection has obvious limits, but for a moment at least, the current president could find common ground with someone whose politics he opposed when he was in the Senate and Reagan was in the White House.

Biden’s speech Thursday at the cemetery focused on Russia’s war against Ukraine. He invoked from the experience of World War II what he called “the unbreakable unity of the Allies.”

“What the Allies did together 80 years ago far surpassed anything we could have done on our own,” he said. “It was a powerful illustration of how alliances, real alliances, make us stronger, a lesson that I pray we Americans never forget.”

Europe today is paying close attention to the American election, with many there fearful of what a reelected Trump would mean for those alliances. Biden and European leaders worry about Russia’s advances in Ukraine and the potential for a fraying of the alliance that has aided the Ukrainians. Biden did not have to say that Trump has denigrated NATO and could weaken it dramatically if elected to another term, for that already was well established.

Biden stands in a tradition that has existed since the end of World War II, a tradition that respects the importance of transatlantic alliances and of America’s role in leading the world. “America’s unique ability to bring countries together is an undeniable source of our strength and our power,” he said. “Isolationism was the not the answer 80 years ago and it is not the answer today.”

Compare that with the 1984 words of Reagan, who was pointing to the America of the 1930s and the strong strain of isolationism at the time. “We’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent,” he said.

When he spoke in 2014, Barack Obama described Normandy as “democracy’s beachhead,” and it was democracy and the threats it faces that were at the heart of Biden’s speech at Pointe du Hoc on Friday. He noted that none of the 225 men who climbed the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc are alive today and urged all to “listen to the echoes of their voices.”

“They’re not asking us to scale these cliffs, but they’re asking us to stay true to what America stands for,” he said. “They’re not asking us to give or risk our lives, but they are asking us to care for others in our country more than ourselves. They’re not asking us to do their job. They’re asking us to do our job, to protect freedom in our time, to defend democracy, to stand up to aggression abroad and at home, to be part of something bigger than ourselves.”

Democracy, he said, is not easy. “American democracy asks the hardest of things, to believe that we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves,” he said. “So democracy begins with each of us. It begins when one person decides there’s something more important than themselves.”

Meanwhile, at home, Trump passed up opportunities to turn away from the politics of retribution, which he has advocated before. Speaking to “Dr. Phil” McGraw, he said, “Revenge does take time. I will say that. And sometimes revenge can be justified, Phil, I have to be honest — sometimes it can.”

In their own ways, Biden and Trump again framed the contrasts and the choice for voters in November.

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