President Obama addressed the nation Sunday night from the Oval Office, a rare use of the sacred symbols of the presidency to reassure Americans about their security while steeling them for a long and complex struggle against the Islamic State.
And the loyal opposition answered his rallying cry over the next day with a patriotic display of carping and dyspepsia.
Donald Trump answered Obama’s call for tolerance by declaring that no Muslims should be permitted to enter the United States: “We need a new president − FAST!”
Marco Rubio proclaimed a “growing sense we have a president who is completely overwhelmed.”
From Republicans on Capitol Hill came a profusion of insults and epithets. “Repackaged half measures. ... Tone deaf ... sales pitch for the status quo ... President Obama is riding the bench at T-ball today.”
It was tiresome. There’s a real case to be made that Obama’s minimalist strategy isn’t working. But the only thing this reflexive complaining does is divide the country further and make a coherent response to Islamic State more difficult.
Rather than cover this National Day of Carping, I went to the World War II Memorial on the Mall, where 20 veterans of that war were observing the 74th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. There, I met Dale “Red” Robinson, a Pearl Harbor survivor and a staff sergeant in the infantry who was later part of the Normandy landing. He recalled the national unity of that war and lamented the divisions that make fighting this one so difficult.
“We were gung-ho. Everybody was,” said Robinson, who is almost 94 but whose blue eyes are as clear as his mind. “Nothing like this, these days. It’s sad, kind of sad, my friend.”
Robinson said he feels “sorry for all of the soldiers” serving today, let down by their political leaders. And he sees little chance of these leaders finding their way. “How could you change this bunch now?”
One thing we can do is admonish them to follow, or at least remember, the example of Robinson’s generation. That’s what Monday afternoon’s ceremony was about. A sailor rang a bell at 1:57 p.m. Eastern time, the moment 74 years earlier when Japanese planes struck, and 2,400 Americans were soon lost with much of the Pacific Fleet.
A military band played the national anthem and, in the front row, veterans stood, some rising from their wheelchairs, and snapped salutes or put hands to hearts.
Rear Adm. Craig Faller addressed the men. “We live all of us today with the prosperity and the security built on the shoulders of these heroes,” he said. “Our challenge as we face the uncertainty and complexity associated with today’s threats is to live up to the example of our World War II veterans.”
That’s our challenge − and we’re failing.
One of the veterans, Laura Mays, told me he finds it “very scary” that the nation is so divided in confronting Islamic State. “The difference is the uncertainty of today, and it’s a big difference,” said Mays, who was a fireman on the USS Oconto and saw action in the Pacific. “Back then we knew we were strong and ... we felt that we were supported.”
Mays, from Texas, said he thinks political leaders aren’t as patriotic as those who sent him to war. “I thought they were more loyal, more concerned about the nation than their position,” he said. Now, “it just seems like everything they do, right or wrong − and mostly wrong − is [because] it’ll get them somewhere.”
Mays and his contemporaries, facing a common enemy, mobilized and sacrificed, regardless of political ideology. Now, our representatives can’t even manage to come up with a resolution authorizing the use of military force against the Islamic State − and they’ve been at it for a year. “I think it’s time for Congress to vote to demonstrate that the American people are united and committed to this fight,” Obama said Sunday night.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., responded to this call to unite by deriding Obama’s speech as “just a half-hearted attempt to defend and distract from a failing policy.” Ryan said we are “one step behind our enemy.”
It does sometimes feel that way. But the opposition has yet to propose a constructive alternative − and the constant sniping at each other does nothing to defeat the Islamic State. As those old soldiers on the Mall taught us, victory comes from unity.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @milbank