Biden seeks to echo Reagan with Normandy speech to honor D-Day

The aging US president, facing a re-election campaign, came to the French Normandy coast to pay tribute to the daring Army Rangers who scaled the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, offering an anthem to the democracy for which they sacrificed and maybe even wrapped himself up a little. little in their reflected glory.

It was 1984, and the president was Ronald Reagan, who delivered an ode to heroism and patriotism that would become one of the most iconic moments of his presidency. Forty years later, another aging president, facing reelection, plans to return to the same place Friday to honor the same heroes and effectively align himself with Mr. Reagan’s legacy of leadership against tyranny.

President Biden won’t be the first president to try to replace Mr. Reagan’s footsteps in Normandy, and it’s a risky gamble. For many in both parties, Mr. Reagan’s speech remains the benchmark for presidential oratory and none since has been matched at Normandy. But like Mr. Reagan, Mr. Biden wants to use the inspiring story of the Rangers at Pointe du Hoc to make the case for American alliances in the face of Russian aggression — and, implicitly, for himself.

If there is something bold about Mr. Biden, a staunch Democrat who was no friend of Mr. Reagan in the 1980s, invoking the spirit of the Republican legend, it testifies to the changing nature and blackness of politics in America today. When it comes to international relations, the 46th president is essentially saying he has more in common with the 40th president than the current leader of the Republican Party.

He won’t name former President Donald J. Trump, but the contrast will be clear. While Mr. Biden is leading an international alliance against Russian aggression in Europe, as Mr. Reagan points out, Mr. Trump, as president, nearly withdrew from NATO and has been more friendly toward Russian President Vladimir V. Putin than toward America’s traditional European allies.

Since leaving office, Mr. Trump has not been a supporter of providing military aid to Ukraine to defend itself against Russian invaders. The former president even publicly stated that he would “encourage” Russia “to do whatever it wants” against NATO members who are not spending enough on their armed forces.

It’s hard to imagine Mr. Reagan telling Moscow to feel free to attack its European allies. During his appearance at Pointe du Hoc on June 6, 1984, Mr. Reagan condemned the Soviet armies for remaining in Europe after World War II “uninvited, unwanted, inflexible” and declared that “we have learned that isolationism has never been and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with expansionist intentions.

Standing atop a concrete German bunker, Mr. Reagan paid tribute to the Army Rangers who scaled the 100-foot rust-colored cliffs that morning, 40 years earlier, to eliminate a bomb site. alleged weapons.

“These are the boys from Pointe du Hoc,” he said as around thirty of them sat in front of him, some with teary eyes. “These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped liberate a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.

Garrett M. Graff, who this week published “When the Sea Came Alive,” an oral history of the Normandy operation, said that Mr. Reagan’s speech “really helped bring D-Day to the forefront.” history to legend”.

“Standing there, come rain or shine,” Mr. Graff said: “One cannot help but be moved by the courage of the men who fought there, the men who fought for one of the noblest causes humanity has ever fought for, to liberate a continent and free Europe from darkness. »

M. Reagan’s speech was so powerful that it both impressed and depressed his Democratic opponent, Walter F. Mondale, who was watching it on television.

“I looked around Mondale’s press office,” William Galston, a Mondale aide, recalled in an oral history for the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. “Everyone was crying, and so was I.” He said he then realized they couldn’t beat Mr. Reagan. “That’s when I knew in my gut that we were dead men alive. »

No one imagines that Mr. Biden’s speech will impress Mr. Trump’s team. But Mr. Galston said this week that Mr. Biden’s task is to “link the challenges of 1944 to the threat we face today and to make the case that Europe’s defense remains essential to vital interests from America “.

Mr. Reagan set the bar high enough that his successors have struggled to keep up. “American presidents end up giving many commemorative speeches, but D-Day anniversaries are probably the most intimidating, because Ronald Reagan’s Pointe du Hoc speech was iconic,” said Daniel Benjamin, speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. “Forty years later, Biden is making a smart move because it is no longer a competition with Reagan, but an echo of that moment. »

Russell Riley, a historian at the Miller Center, said it’s difficult to consciously plan a historical speech. “Reagan created a standard that could make everything else pale in comparison,” he said. “But it remains a point of extraordinary possibility for President Biden – precisely because the topic is so historically relevant at this moment in time.”

Reagan’s speech was written by Peggy Noonan, a young speechwriter who had joined the White House staff two months earlier and had not yet even met the president. In her memoir, she describes seeking inspiration by walking around the Washington Monument and reading books about D-Day, including Cornelius Ryan’s “The Longest Day.” She ultimately adapted the most memorable line from the title speech of the baseball classic, “The Boys of Summer.”

Max Boot, author of “Reagan: His Life and Legend,” a forthcoming biography, called it one of the highlights of his presidency.

“It was one of the greatest presidential speeches of the postwar era,” Mr. Boot said this week. “This is a standard that Biden cannot aspire to. But it is also an opportunity for him to recall the time when Republicans like Ronald Reagan were NATO’s staunchest defenders rather than its staunchest critics.”

Mr. Reagan was much stronger politically than Mr. Biden is now. He held a nine-point lead over Mr. Mondale in a survey in early June, a margin that nearly doubled to 17 points later that month, according to a Gallup poll. Mr. Biden, on the other hand, is more or less tied to Mr. Trump in several polls released in recent days. Mr. Biden is also eight years older than Mr. Reagan was at the time, and age has become an even bigger electoral challenge for him than for his predecessor.

Some analysts thought it was unwise for Mr. Biden to try to emulate Mr. Reagan.

“It seems odd to pick the site where Reagan gave his best speech,” said Kori Schake, director of foreign policy and defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a former aide to President George W. Bush. This only “invites unwanted comparisons.”

Mr. Biden’s speech, according to Aides, was written by his speechwriting team with his longtime adviser Mike Donilon and historian Jon Meacham, who is in Normandy for the ceremonies. Aides said this was a speech to the American people and was scheduled for late afternoon in France so that it would be broadcast mid-morning in our country.

“The Pointe du Hoc speech is a speech about, in his view, timeless principles – principles that have served as the foundation of American security and American democracy for generations,” Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor to the President.

Principles may be timeless, but politics is not. Mr. Biden was not always a fan of Mr. Reagan’s foreign policy. In a speech at Harvard in 1987 as a senator prepared for his first campaign for president, Mr. Biden attacked Mr. Reagan’s “military adventures” and declared that “the Reagan Doctrine is in tatters “, adding: “I have abandoned this administration.”

But that was then, and it is now. Mr. Reagan is revered by many, and Mr. Trump is on the ballot. For Mr. Biden, one certainly seems more acceptable than the other. He hasn’t abandoned Mr. Reagan administration after all. Now he wants to exploit it.

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