Tag Archives: London Blitz

Obama’s Flyover: The President Should Have Gone to West Virginia

During the blitz of World War II, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill went into the streets of London to stand with his people against the Nazis. But nowadays, our leaders are mostly absent in times of travail. After 9/11, George W. Bush took three full days to make it to New York, waiting until the coast was clear before claiming his photo-op with the firefighters and cops and rescue workers at Ground Zero. And when Katrina devastated New Orleans, Bush opted for his famous flyover, viewing the suffering from a the comfort of Airport One at 2,500 feet. 

Last week, Barack Obama continued the tradition. It seemed the president just couldn’t find the time to take puddle jumper down to Massey Coal’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia  to comfort the families of those who died in the worst coal mine disaster in 40 years. Nor did Michelle Obama or even Joe Biden, who is talked about as the the administration’s liaison to working-class whites.

The governor of West Virginia, Joe Manchin, was on hand as the futile rescue attempts took place, but but his state is such a pawn in the hands of the coal industry that it was hard to take him seriously. Today, at least, he did take the step of appointing Davitt McAteer, a longtime reformer who headed the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration under Clinton, to oversee an independent investigation into the disaster. As I wrote last week, McAteer, who headed a similar investigation after the 2006 Sago disaster killed 12 miners, is without question the best man for this job. But his work will only have meaning if the government implements–and enforces–the safety improvements he recommends.

Obama, too, has promised launch an investigation into the causes of the mine explosion. But there already have been investigations into Massey Energy’s violation of federal safety laws. This was an especially dreadful disaster because the U.S. government, which had been equipped with mine safety laws at the insistance of  reformers, wouldn’t adequately enforce them, allowing Massey to drag its feet and rack up violations until the inevitable happened. That mine was just waiting to blow up, and the feds effectively stood by and permitted a greedy company put profits ahead of its workers’ lives.

Instead of an investigation, Obama ought to call a federal grand jury to weigh criminal penalties against the owners and top officers of the company. And he ought to have taken the time to personally visit the place where 29 men died because the government–including his own administration, as well as his predecessor’s–failed to do its job.

Obama, like Bush before him, might have taken a lesson from what Lyndon Johnson did in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Betsy back in 1965–as described in this brief passage from the Louisiana Weekly:

On September 10, 1965, the day after Hurricane Betsy plowed through southeastern Louisiana, President Lyndon Johnson flew to New Orleans.  He went to the people, to shelters where evacuees were gathered, to neighborhoods all over the city.  There was no electricity and, so that people could see and hear him at one shelter, he took a flashlight,  shined it into his face and said into a megaphone, “My name is Lyndon Baines Johnson.  I am your president.  I am here to make sure you have the help you need.”

D-Day, the Queen, and a Wartime Childhood

By now we’ve all heard about how Queen Elizabeth was snubbed by Nicholas Sarkozy, who was apparently so dazzled by the prospect of Barack Obama’s visit that he neglected to invite the queen to any of the events commemorating the 65th anniversary of D-Day. (In a last-minute face-saver, Prince Charles agreed to attend instead.) Some people are blaming Gordon Brown, who was too busy trying to save his political skin to make sure the queen got her due. But the British press, which is having a field day over this royal faux pas, has directed most of its rage at Sarko, and at the ungrateful French in general.

The Daily Mail declared the snub “an insult to the memory of the 17,556 British and 5,316 Canadian troops who died to free France and are buried there.” Commentators in the same paper took things a step further, declaring Sarzkozy a “diminutive egomaniac,” and denouncing the French as cheese-eating surrender monkeys whose “widespread collaboration with  the Nazi occupiers” made it all the more difficult for the British to “save” them from tyranny.  

I don’t go in for French-bashing, and under normal circumstances, I couldn’t care less about anyone in the British royal family, or any of the pomp and protocol that surround them. I think it’s great that Michelle Obama dared to touch the queen–she could have given her a fist bump for all I care. In fact, I wonder why the Brits don’t just do away with the monarchy altogether, and save themselves a lot of money. (Although they’d still have to deal with MPs cleaning their moats at the public’s expense.) But when it comes to anything having to do with the Second World War, I’ve got a soft spot for the British in general, and in particular for HRH–who lives in my earliest memories as Princess Elizabeth. 

I had a wartime childhood. When I was very small, we used to sitting around the radio, listening to Edward R. Murrow’s broadcasts from the streets of London during the Blitz.

Later, when America was in the war and my family lived in Washington, D.C., we listened with our blackout curtains drawn. I remember hearing the news about D-Day, and later seeing the newsreels when we went to the movies. Those were the sounds and images of my childhood.

Elizabeth Windsor changing a tire during her service with the APS.

Elizabeth Windsor changing a tire during her service with the ATS.

I also have a clear memory of Princess Elizabeth, who was just ten years older than I was and still a teenager, speaking from the balcony of Buckingham Palace. I don’t know exactly when this happened or what she said, but I remember that she and her family seemed cheerful and apparently fearless despite being in a ravaged city, at the heart of a threatened land.  Later, the princess worked as an ambulence driver in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. As the press has rightly pointed out, she is the last living head of state to have actually served in World War II.

It all sounds pretty sentimental, I know. But there’s something else going on here, as well–something that has to do with age and the generations. It is widely assumed that the 65th anniversary will be the last major gathering of D-Day veterans on the landing beaches, since the youngest of them are now in their 80s. Speaking at the American Cemetery on the cliffs over Omaha Beach this morning, Barack Obama talked about a veteran of the 101st Airborne who had come to Normandy for the anniversary, and died last night in his sleep.

None of the heads of state present at the ceremonies was even alive during the war. If the queen had been there, at least she would be commemorating a lived experience–not something recorded in history books and PBS documentaries, and remembered by fewer and fewer of us with every passing year.