Frank Buckles, the last surviving veteran of World War I, who died last week at 110, may seem the epitome of an American hero. And you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would disagree. But when it comes to holding a public viewing of his body in the Capitol Rotunda, well, that might be a little too much, say John Boehner and Harry Reid, who have so far denied the requests by Buckles’s family and West Virginia’s congressional delegation for such an honor.
As uncomfortable as this must be for the speaker and majority leader, it’s not a totally illogical or callous stance. The ceremony has been bestowed upon just 30 people — almost exclusively presidents, senators, and generals — since it first started in 1852 with Henry Clay. Buckles served his country honorably and courageously, but so did millions upon millions of other people who fought in World War I and the country’s other wars. His true feat was living a really long time, which is impressive, but probably not “Rotunda impressive.” Boehner and Reid “have suggested instead that there be a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, a high honor not afforded to every veteran.” So that’s nice.
Then again, politicians are always talking about honoring our soldiers and thanking them for their sacrifices. What better way to do that than a very public display of gratitude to a man who wanted so badly to serve his country in such a pointless war that he lied about his age in order to enlist? And what better way to celebrate an entire generation of doughboys who have now entirely passed away? Besides, from a completely selfish standpoint, the only way Reid and Boehner are getting the honor themselves is if the Rotunda club becomes a lot less exclusive over the next few decades, so they may as well start lowering the threshold now.