As a presidential candidate, Dwight Eisenhower promised he would go to Korea, the site of a conflict that ultimately killed 50,000 U.S. soldiers. And so, in 1952, President-elect Eisenhower went to Korea.
At a tense moment of the Cold War in 1963, President John F. Kennedy went to West Berlin and aligned himself with those on the free side of the Iron Curtain. “Ich bin ein Berliner,” Kennedy told a crowd of 450,000.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson visited one of the most poverty-ravaged parts of Appalachia. After his visit with residents of Martin County, Ky., Johnson told reporters, “I have called for a national war on poverty. Our objective: total victory.”
In 1972, President Richard Nixon, who built his early political career as a strident anti-communist, went to China and widened diplomatic relations with the communist nation.
In 1995 after the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City killed 168 people, President Bill Clinton went to Oklahoma. “You have lost too much, but you have not lost everything,” Clinton said at a memorial service for the victims. “And you have certainly not lost America, for we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes.”
In 2005, more than two weeks after Hurricane Katrina ripped up the Gulf Coast, President George W. Bush went to New Orleans. “So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality,” Bush said.
As of late last week, President Barack Obama refused to travel to the scene of what might be the biggest story of 2014 and perhaps of his second term in the White House.
An estimated 50,000 children from Central America have made their way north to the U.S.-Mexico border. Many of them, witnesses tell us, arrive without a parent. They are escaping brutal conditions in their native countries — a life of gang violence, unbelievable sexual crimes, virtually no prospects for an education or a stable job.
Their parents mistakenly believe that their children will be safe if they can somehow make it across the border and into custody of the U.S. government. That’s most likely not how the story will end, White House officials predict. Though there may be some cases where a U.S. immigration judge will grant a child asylum, most of these young refugees will be deported.
It’s a bloody mess, one where we only find suffering, hardship and heartbreaking stories.
When asked last week if he would travel to the border to see the issue first-hand, Obama declined, saying he was in problem-solving mode, not photo-op mode.
Too late, Mr. President.
We live in a photo-op world created and improved upon long before Obama took office.
Let’s give credit where it’s due. This column was strongly influenced by an online article for Esquire written last week by author and commentator Charles Pierce. He smartly summed up the border crisis: “These kids have come thousands of miles, many of them through a desert. They have had to negotiate a universe of deadly hustlers, sex-traffickers, and other lowlifes incomprehensible to the rest of us. They have had to traverse a landscape without water or pity. They have had to make a journey through some of the hostile terrain, some of the harshest weather, and some of the darkest parts of the human soul just for a bunk in McAllen, Texas.”
That’s one part of this story, and a compelling one at that. However, there’s more to it, including how the U.S. government addresses this problem and how Americans, a people famous for their compassion in times of crisis, can do their part.
The president is right to suggest that putting his feet on the ground along the border won’t magically fix the problem. However, as has been the case many times before, a presidential visit to a place in turmoil leaves a mighty big footprint.