The Bushes, from afar

For a White House that revels in restraint, a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum is dignified -- and very private.

By Jake Tapper
Published April 19, 2001 2:01PM (EDT)

A few weeks ago, President Bush was invited to speak at the Days of Remembrance event, commemorating the Holocaust, to be held Thursday at noon at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. The invitation came courtesy of Benjamin Meed, a hero of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, who extended the invitation on behalf of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Bush, however, wasn't content to just deliver a speech. So he had a staffer ask the museum if he and his wife could visit the museum prior to his speech. And so, on Wednesday night, the first couple, Laura Bush's mother, Jenna Welch, and around 15 Bush family friends -- including Texas GOP state Rep. Florence Shapiro -- were guided throughout the four floors of the museum by Rabbi Irving Greenberg, chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council; Ruth Mandel, the vice-chairman; and Sara Bloomfield, the museum's director.

During the campaign, reporters would have been permitted to cover such an event. It's through such vignettes that journalists think they can help the public learn a little bit about their leaders, see them as human and get a stronger sense of who they are. A number of reporters were there Wednesday night with the express purpose of writing just such a story about Bush at the museum, letting him guide readers through the museum.

But that wasn't in the cards. This White House revels in restraint, and Bush has done a lot to emphasize the importance of dignity and privacy by not attending the welcoming ceremony for the 24 returning crew members of the U.S. spy plane, by not commenting on the racial riots in Cincinnati and by not publicly feeling the pain of the latest school shooting. So the White House didn't let us accompany him and his group of 20 through the museum.

Instead, during his 70-minute tour, the press pool waited for him in the Hall of Remembrance. When you're surrounded by six cold marble walls bearing the names of various concentration camps -- Dachau, Treblinka, Buchenwald -- as well as biblical quotes ("What have you done? Hark thy brother's blood cries out to me from the ground!" Genesis 4:20), it's difficult to be angry that the president isn't as media-accessible as you'd like.

When Bush finally showed, the seven photographers and three TV cameramen erupted with whrrs and click-click-clicks -- as had been planned -- capturing every solemn moment as he and Laura Bush stood, seemingly moved, at the "Eternal Flame." The flame burns over a canister of earth collected from concentration camps, World War II ghettos and American cemeteries where U.S. soldiers from that time are buried. The Bushes then walked up a few stairs to light candles in honor of the 1 million victims of the horrors at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. Holding hands, they walked out of the room as photographers snapped away. Click-click-click.

I suppose allowing the press a few moments to take some photos is an attempt at a compromise -- giving the press and the public some glimpse of the Bushes while allowing the couple to keep some part of themselves for themselves. So, Wednesday night, the nation would have to settle for a photo op.

Not so for the president, museum vice-chairman Mandel later told me. Mandel reported that throughout the visit, Bush was "attentive, focused, engaged." While some visitors walk quickly through the exhibits, Bush stopped often, asking questions, reading the materials, watching the videotapes. He was curious about where the artifacts came from, about the process of collection.

One video in particular -- a Nazi-made color film featuring Adolf Hitler speaking to a large crowd -- seemed to hold his interest for some time. He also apparently was quite amazed by the "Tower of Faces," a three-story-high display of 1,500 pre-Holocaust photographs of Jewish citizens of Eishyshok, a then Polish, now Lithuanian town where Nazis killed the entire Jewish populace of 3,500 on the Jewish New Year in 1943.

"He said he was very proud of the museum," Mandel reported.

"He said he thought it was an extraordinary museum, and he wished everyone could see it," added Greenberg.

Bush and the first lady both told their guests that they'd visited the Israeli Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem. And after the tour, Bush greeted an assembled group of 500 or so leaders of the Jewish community, Holocaust survivors, members of the museum governing council and White House staffers -- the latter of whom erupted with cheers that Bush, in a calm and fatherly manner, squelched.

"This is a hallowed place," Bush said. "Please behave yourselves."

"This isn't like any other museum," Bush continued, reading from prepared remarks. "It bears witness to the best and the worst of the human heart." He urged all Americans to visit the museum when they visit the nation's capital. He finished up quickly, greeted members of the crowd -- using a somewhat toned-down version of his fabled schmoozing skills -- and hopped in his motorcade back to the White House.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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