It couldn’t have been a great day for Carol Johnson. Carol Johnson is the chief of public affairs for the National Mall and Memorial Parks at the National Park Service, which is a long way of saying that she was the person who, clad in her olive uniform and a Smokey Bear hat, had the unenviable job of explaining to a scrum of reporters and one very upset U.S. congressman why she couldn’t allow the dozens of en route World War II veterans into their memorial. I can think of a lot of terrible ways to start a Wednesday, and that’s one of the worst. The defense she offered to recorder-wielding reporters and cranky bystanders — “We have to do what we need to do to protect the monuments” — didn’t go over so well.
Questions fell thick and fast: “Protect from who?” “How much did it cost to rent the fences that you guys just put up?” “Who instructed you to do this?” “When you say protect the monument, who do you — protect from whom?” “Open air! It’s an open-air monument!”
“What I can say is, the memorial is legally closed,” she said emphatically. “We’re asking for cooperation. And that’s pretty much all I can say.”
Representative Bill Huizenga (R., Mich.), who watched Johnson’s unfortunate ad hoc press conference from the edges of the scrum, wasn’t pleased.
“I’ll be damned if they’re going to shut this down and not let these guys get in here,” he concluded.
Halfway down the block, Karen Cucurullo, also of the National Park Service, tried to explain more.
“It’s a very difficult time for the National Park Service,” she told a few reporters. “We wish it was open. We wish our park rangers were here to greet them properly. We love having Honor Flights at this site,” she said, referring to the nonprofit that flies veterans to D.C. to see their memorials. “We work closely with them, and this is a very difficult time, so we hope that they respect our closure.”
But it’s not that simple. The logistics of transporting hundreds of aging veterans to Washington, D.C. — booking hotels, chartering jets, etc. — can’t be easily rejiggered to accommodate congressional infighting. Honor Flight doesn’t have a contingency for less-than-once-in-a-decade government gridlock. And many of the veterans who visit D.C. have terminal illnesses. Those with six months or less to live are top priority, and if their visits get postponed because of a few lightweight barricades, they might never see the memorials. One volunteer told me Honor Flight is planning to bring more than 800 veterans to D.C. this week, shutdown be damned.
So the memorial was a zoo by 11 a.m., crawling with cable-TV personalities, flag-waving and sign-toting bystanders, photographers scrambling to get the best angles, senators, representatives, and, of course, countless reporters.
The barricade closing off the entrance to the monument vanished — Honor Flight co-founder Jeff Miller later told me he just picked it up and moved it to the side — so when the veterans arrived, they just (slowly) strolled and rolled right in. Most seemed amused or unmoved by the attention from media and politicians.
“It’s great, it’s great,” said Jim Fleer, an Air Force veteran who served in the Korean War and was seeing the monument for the first time. “There’s a lot more that we want to see that we don’t think we’re going to get to see, but just seeing this is great.”
The veterans who came to the memorial this morning were from Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago — a group from Michigan came in the afternoon — so members of Congress from the Midwest were out in full force.
Representative Mike Pompeo (R., Kan.), an Army veteran whose father fought in the Korean War, seemed to be enjoying himself. I asked how it felt to break into a memorial, and he laughed, saying, “It’s my first time breaking into anything, that I’m going to tell you about, at least!” He added that he always comes out for Honor Flights when he’s in town. “These are amazing men who’ve done amazing, amazing service to our nation,” he said. “These folks have been looking forward to this for years.”
But one senator, Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, was “very disappointed” that there were politicians there whose states didn’t have veterans present. When I asked Representative Emanuel Cleaver (D., Mo.) if there was anything Congress could do to open the memorials, he was pessimistic, saying that opening the memorial would be a slippery slope.
“Well, the problem with doing that is that you then open the NIH, and they have kids with cancer who couldn’t get in there yesterday,” he said. “And so if you open that, then, is there a need for us to open the Social Security offices because elderly people can’t file for their Social Security? And if you do that, it just keeps going.”
After going through the gauntlet of reporters, politicians, and cheering crowd members calling “Welcome to your memorial!,” the veterans trickled in. One wheelchair-bound veteran jokingly made racecar noises as he was pushed down the ramp.
Later, a smaller group of Honor Flight veterans headed to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. The scene couldn’t have been more different. A barrier blocking the sidewalk leading to the Wall had been pushed aside by tourists long before the veterans arrived — these barriers seem primarily decorative — so they just scooted their wheelchairs through and meandered on in. It was almost completely silent; there wasn’t a politician to be seen, and only a handful of reporters tagged behind the group. No park rangers, no TV cameras, no impromptu interviews. The Wall has always felt to me more like a tombstone than a memorial, and today that seemed more evident than ever.
Next the group headed for its final stop, the Korean War Memorial. Its barricades were a little trickier to navigate, especially for the wheelchair-bound, but they all got in by wheeling off the sidewalk and onto the grass and then around the gates.
One of the offroading vets who busted into the memorials was Carl Frienza, who came with his neighbor Brian Krueger. Krueger told me Frienza served in the five most important battles of the European Theater during World War II and was recently inducted into the French Légion d’Honneur. (The employees at the coffee shop where Frienza often hangs out have started calling him Sir Carl.)
“I want to know what they’re really calling me!” Frienza said with a laugh. “Who would ever think I’d be knighted.”
Some treatment America’s knights got today.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.