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Gum-chewer-in-chief: how Obama's D-Day actions measure up to Reagan's and Bush's

Obama chewing gum during the D-Day memorial service in France in 2014
Obama chewing gum during the D-Day memorial service in France in 2014
Photo by: Media Still

D-Day. Americans know it as the day Allied forces stormed Normandy in the most memorable wave against the Germans. On just one day – June 6, 1944 – 4,414 Allied troops were killed and another 8,000 or more suffered injuries of varying severity. Honoring America’s World War Two veterans, and the 291,557 American troops killed in combat during the war, is the duty of every American citizen. And for American presidents, it should be considered an honor to be given vast opportunities to walk on the hallowed ground where our nation’s greatest heroes fought, bled, and died.

The list of United States presidents who have actually made it to Normandy while they were in office is fairly short. In 1978, Jimmy Carter became the first POTUS to visit (while in office) Normandy, and he took the opportunity to pledge American’s protection to Western Europe for the duration of the Cold War. Unsurprisingly, President Ronald Reagan visited Normandy in 1984, visiting a 100-foot cliff that had been scaled by fearless Army Rangers forty years prior. For those unfamiliar with Pointe Du Hoc, it was a bloody yet vital part of the D-Day invasion. Pointe Du Hoc is a promontory overlooking the English Channel, and its 100-foot cliff made it the highest objective between Utah Beach and Omaha Beach. The Germans, rightly assuming the Allies would need to take the location as part of their initial assault, built immense concrete casements and gun pits housing GPF 155mm K418(f) heavy field guns. US Army Rangers climbed the sheer cliff face boldly, successfully taking and defending Pointe Du Hoc from determined waves of Germans. But the price was high; 225 Rangers came up the cliff on June 6, but in the end, 135 of those 225 were dead. And so, on Reagan’s visit on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, one of our greatest presidents gave one of his most stirring speeches:

“The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers -- the edge of the cliffs shooting down at them with machine guns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After 2 days of fighting, only 90 could still bear arms.

Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there.

These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. 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.” (President Ronald Reagan, 6 June 1984, at Pointe Du Hoc in France)

Ten years later, on the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day, then-President Bill Clinton visited the United States Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France. Clinton spoke of the willpower and strength shown by Allied forces on that day and posed the question of how America could best build on the sacrifices made by Her World War Two veterans. He spoke of Corporal Frank Elliot, who was killed on D-Day not far from where he stood, fifty years later. He offered thanks and ended with, “God bless you all.”

On Memorial Day in 2002, President George W. Bush made his first visit as POTUS to the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. He spoke of bravery and loss, and drove home the need to remember our fallen service members. Perhaps one of the saddest lines of that first visit’s speech was in regards to Private Jimmy Hall, who, Bush said, on D-Day, “was seen carrying the body of his brother, Johnny, saying, "He can't, he can't be dead. I promised Mother I'd look after him." Bush closed his speech with a reminder our fallen soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are in the arms of God, and his customary “God bless.”

When President George W. Bush made his second visit as POTUS to Normandy on the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day in 2004, he opened his remarks by remembering Ronald Reagan, who he called a “courageous man” and a “gallant leader.” Reagan had passed away just the day before, on June 5, 2004, and his loss was mourned all around the world. Bush reminded the present veterans and dignitaries of Roosevelt’s address to the nation in 1944, when he offered a prayer rather than a speech. He went on the recount personal memories from World War Two veterans and tales of valor and sacrifice. Bush’s first speech standing at the United States Cemetery in France was full of emotion and pride in our military.

“When the invasion was finally over and the guns were silent, this coast, we are told, was lined for miles with the belongings of the thousands who fell. There were life belts and canteens and socks and K-rations and helmets and diaries and snapshots. And there were Bibles, many Bibles, mixed with the wreckage of war. Our boys had carried in their pockets the book that brought into the world this message: Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

America honors all the liberators who fought here in the noblest of causes, and America would do it again for our friends. May God bless you.” (President George W. Bush, 6 June 2004, Normandy, France)

And now it is 2014, and yesterday, June 6, 2014, was the seventieth anniversary of the D-Day invasion. On the seventieth anniversary of D-Day, President Barack Obama visited the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer in France. His speech was unlike those of the in-office presidents who visited before him. Within moments of its opening lines, he honored himself, quoting a letter he says he received from a French citizen the prior week. Although some might argue the contents of the letter included thanks to the American people, it is incredibly telling Obama skipped portions and chose to include the French citizen’s “[we] are honored to welcome you.” The “you,” of course, being Obama himself. Of course, there’s more to this story than a writer’s annoyance at certain aspects of a speech.

All our presidents have speech writers, and understandably so. Different presidents take varied courses of involvement in the creation of their speeches, some being more or less involved than others, and some presidents frequently need teleprompters (that’s right, Obama, I’m talking to you) while others do not (The Republican tendency to use notations on 5x8 notecards to refresh their memory if need be has become a point of pride in recent years). Media strategist Fred Davis says of teleprompter use, “It’s a negative, because it’s a sign of inauthenticity. It’s a sign you can’t think on your own two feet. It’s a sign that you have handlers behind you, telling you what to say.” One reporter referred to Obama’s 2014 D-Day speech as an “Olympic teleprompter event,” while another joked of the length Obama had to read during the course of the D-Day speech, saying, “[Obama] must be exhausted.” (For the record, when Reagan delivered his 1984 speech, he had nothing but a few notations on notecards and a small podium, while Obama had the massive presidential dais and his trusty teleprompter.)

But many will say this writer is doing nothing but nit-picking Obama’s speech-giving abilities, or lack thereof, so let’s get to the heart of the matter. If one does not wish to judge our past and present president’s intentions by speeches which are typically written by others, why not judge them by their actions? The United States has a history of presidents, hand over heart, honoring the American flag, showing respect to veterans, and, in the case of George W. Bush, laying a memorial wreath at Arlington seven years out of the eight he was in office, rather than sending a representative. How do Obama’s actions measure up? Well, at Colleville-sur-Mer at the seventieth anniversary event to mark D-Day, Obama was there, all right. Chewing gum.

Yes, you heard me, chewing gum. Obama was captured on numerous video feeds and in photographs chomping on a wad of gum, clearly distracted, during the memorial service. He was also working the gum over during the French National Anthem, and the French people took to Twitter to express their anger. Translated to English for your viewing pleasure:

“Obama and his chewing gum. Classy.” Gregory Gasson @GregGasson

“Not very elegant, the Obama attitude in the middle of the ceremony.” Thierry Le Bras @ThierryLeBras2

“Is there anyone who will ask Barack Obama to stop chewing on his gum like a cowboy?” Jayce Oliver @jaycelight (to which another user replied: “Cowboys, how you say, do not chew ze gum. But your point is well taken.” Kevin @blogagog)

“Obama, do you want a Coke, too, while chewing gum while the Marseillaise is being played?” Ernest Gransagne @luminea2017 (regarding chewing the gum during the playing of the French National Anthem)

“Cannot believe it…at 70th D-Day service at Ouistreham, Pres. Obama is chewing gum like a cow chewing its cud. Unbelievable.” Theloon @theloon

“Barack Obama and his chewing gum disgust me. What a lack of respect; it’s revolting!” Alexandre @poke_her_face

“Obama and his chewing gum: American class!” clement perrot @clementperrot

“Obama and his chewing gum…shouldn’t someone tell him this is an homage to the soldiers?” Aurore FITOUSSI @FITOUSSIaurore

“I find Obama too happy for the occasion, and he’s annoying me with his gum.” Loreley @_dunderhead

And perhaps one French tweet hit the nail on the head. Another highlight of the solemn D-Day memorial ceremony was Obama’s avoidance of Vladimir Putin. It would increase the length of this article tenfold to explain the significance of Obama blatantly snubbing Putin, but French Twitter-account holder “Gargantua @AlainPerrogon” may have said it best: “The ‘Obama beach’: say hello to America’s ‘chewing gum’ strategy for beating the Russians.”

Sadly, it is precisely these sorts of classless behaviors which continue to earn Americans a bad reputation throughout the world. Who can blame the French, or others, for being disgusted with the American president seated by the Queen, chewing gum during the D-Day ceremony and the playing of the French National Anthem? Who can blame World War Two veteran George Ciampa of the 84th Graves Registration Unit, who landed on Normandy on D-Day, for refusing Obama’s request to meet him in France on the seventieth anniversary of D-Day? Some speculated Obama was chewing nicotine gum as a way to get through the ceremony, but there is no way to know whether it was Nicorette or Bubbaliscious. The simple fact of the matter is this. We have a president whose moments of respect for our military are carefully scripted. It is hard to believe Obama has done a single thing of his own volition to honor or benefit our service members, and it is simultaneously infuriating and heart-breaking. It is a shameful moment for the administration, Obama chewing gum at Colleville-sur-Mer. On behalf of an embarrassed nation, my sincerest apologies to the French and to all our fallen and living World War Two veterans, no, to all American veterans and active-duty service members. Apologies for a president whose policies and actions continue to erode the very foundation this once great nation was built upon. I salute you, although our current commander-in-chief offers only a wad of gum.

“Obama’s chewing gum… Seriously?” Ovale de Grace @MathildePousseo (couldn’t have said it better myself)

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Text of presidential speeches can be found at: President George W. Bush's Memorial Day speech at Normandy, 2002 President George W. Bush's D-Day memorial speech, June 6, 2004 President Bill Clinton's D-Day memorial speech, 1994 President Barack Obama's D-Day memorial speech, 2014


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