NPR logo Obama's Memorial Day Was Certainly Memorable

Obama's Memorial Day Was Certainly Memorable

You have to wonder if President Barack Obama at some point Monday wished he had just marked Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery, after all.

Because the scheduled event at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery sure didn't work out like he had planned.

As has been widely reported, the president was supposed to give a speech that got rained out Monday. Actually, if it had just been rain, that wouldn't have been a problem.

But it was a full storm cell, with thunder pealing and lightning cracking, that forced the president to call off the event and ask all in attendance to return to their vehicles for safety.

With the winds and rain picking up, the president, holding an umbrella at a rain drenched presidential podium, calmly told the audience:

"Excuse me, everybody listen up. We are a little bit concerned about lightning. This may not be safe. I know that all of you are here to commemorate the fallen... What we'd like to do is if possible have people move back to their cars and if this passes in the next 15-20 minutes I'll stick around... But we don't want to endanger anyone, particularly the children, in the audience. A little bit of rain doesn't hurt anybody but we don't want anybody struck by lightning."

The scene prompts a few thoughts. One, given there were concerns for lightning, shouldn't the Secret Service have had an agent hold the umbrella, an especially tall one who could serve as a lightning rod for the president?

More seriously, it would seem like any outdoor presidential event would have its own weather forecaster assigned to it, perhaps a military one. Why wasn't there an earlier warning about the storm cell?

As it turned out, Monday was a vibrantly sunny Memorial Day in Washington where Vice President Joe Biden did the traditional honors at Arlington as the president's stand-in. And where some critics thought the president really belonged on Memorial Day. That other presidents had also observed Memorial Day elsewhere in the nation didn't seem to matter to those critics.

The Illinois storm seemed like yet another unnecessary reminder to Obama that even presidents are impotent in the face of nature's powers. The Gulf of Mexico already seemed to be doing an excellent job of driving home that point.

A reporter serving as the eyes and ears for media not at the event described the scene:

People trudging barefoot across flooded fields, taking shelter in available vehicles. The wreath Obama laid earlier blown over. Flash flood-type pools of water on the road. Sharp bursts of lightning. Everyone, needless to say, is drenched.

The president met on their buses with service members and their families who had come to the event. He never did get to give his speech at the Illinois cemetery.

As if the rain wasn't bad enough, White House staffers found that their BlackBerries didn't work in Elwood, Ill. This forced a White House spokesman to go from vehicle to vehicle in the driving rain to update journalists and staffers about the changing plans.

After leaving the cemetery and tooling up an interstate highway, the presidential motorcade had to come to a sudden stop on its way to the next stop, the Fisher House for wounded veterans and their families in Hines, Ill. An SUV in the motorcade had a blowout, a word that if the Obama White House hears again, it will be too soon.

Towards evening, the president and his considerable entourage returned to Washington. At Andrews Joint Base, officials had rustled up a few hundred people late on a Memorial Day and the president was finally able to give his speech in a building called the "tactical fitness center."

Again, a Memorial Day that will live in memory, especially the memory of whoever at the White House is responsible for keeping close tabs for the president's outdoor events.