Forty Years Later, Biden Seeks to Echo Reagan’s Legacy of American Leadership

The aging American president facing a re-election campaign came to the Normandy coast of France to pay tribute to the daring Army Rangers who scaled the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, offer a paean to democracy for which they sacrificed and perhaps even wrap himself a little bit in their reflected glory.

That was 1984, and the president was Ronald Reagan, who delivered an ode to heroism and patriotism that would become one of the most iconic moments of his presidency. Forty years later, another aging president facing re-election plans to return to the same spot Friday to honor the same heroes and effectively align himself with Mr. Reagan’s legacy of leadership against tyranny.

President Biden will not be the first president to try to walk in Mr. Reagan’s footsteps in Normandy, and it is a risky gamble. To many in both parties, Mr. Reagan’s speech remains the gold standard of presidential oratory and none have matched it at Normandy since. But like Mr. Reagan, Mr. Biden wants to use the inspiring story of the Rangers at Pointe du Hoc to make a case for American alliances in the face of Russian aggression — and, implicitly, for himself.

If there is something audacious about Mr. Biden, a staunch Democrat who was no friend of Mr. Reagan’s in the 1980s, summoning the spirit of the Republican legend, it speaks to the up-is-down, black-is-white nature of politics in today’s America. When it comes to international relations, the 46th president essentially is arguing that he has more in common with the 40th president than the current head of the Republican Party does.

He will not name former President Donald J. Trump, but the contrast will be clear. While Mr. Biden leads an international alliance against Russian aggression in Europe, as Mr. Reagan did, Mr. Trump as president came close to pulling out of NATO and was friendlier toward President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia than to America’s traditional European allies.

Since leaving office, Mr. Trump has not been a supporter of providing military aid for Ukraine to defend itself against Russian invaders. The former president even publicly declared that he would “encourage” Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” against NATO members that do not spend enough on their militaries.

It is hard to imagine Mr. Reagan telling Moscow to feel free to attack European allies. When he appeared at Pointe du Hoc on June 6, 1984, Mr. Reagan condemned Soviet armies for staying in Europe after World War II “uninvited, unwanted, unyielding” and said that “we’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent.”

Standing above a German concrete bunker, Mr. Reagan paid tribute to the Army Rangers who scaled the 100-foot rust-colored cliffs that morning 40 years earlier to take out a suspected gun emplacement.

“These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc,” he said as about 30 of them sat in front of him, some teary-eyed. “These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”

Garrett M. Graff, who this week published “When the Sea Came Alive,” an oral history of the Normandy operation, said Mr. Reagan’s speech “really helped lift D-Day from history to legend.”

“Standing there, in rain or sun,” Mr. Graff said, “you can’t help but be moved by the bravery of the men who fought there, men who fought for one of the noblest causes humans have ever fought for, to liberate a continent and free Europe from darkness.”

Mr. Reagan’s speech was so powerful that it both impressed and depressed aides to his Democratic challenger, Walter F. Mondale, who were watching on television.

“I looked around the Mondale press office,” William Galston, a Mondale aide, recalled in an oral history for the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “Everybody was crying, and so was I.” He said that he realized then that they could not beat Mr. Reagan. “That was the point at which I knew in my gut that we were dead men walking.”

No one imagines that Mr. Biden’s oratory will impress Mr. Trump’s team. But Mr. Galston said this week that Mr. Biden’s task is “to link the challenges of 1944 to the threat we face today and to make the case that the defense of Europe remains essential to America’s vital interests.”

Mr. Reagan set the bar high enough that successors have struggled to follow. “American presidents wind up doing a lot of commemorative speeches, but D-Day anniversaries are probably the most intimidating because Ronald Reagan’s Pointe du Hoc speech was iconic,” said Daniel Benjamin, who was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. “Forty years later, Biden is making a smart move because it is no longer a competition with Reagan, but an echoing of that moment.”

Russell Riley, a historian at the Miller Center, said it is hard to consciously plan for a landmark speech. “Reagan has created a standard that may cause everything else to pale by comparison,” he said. “But this remains an extraordinary point of possibility for President Biden — precisely because the subject is so historically relevant to this moment in time.”

The Reagan address was written by Peggy Noonan, a young speechwriter who had joined the White House staff two months earlier and had yet to even meet the president. In her memoir, she described seeking inspiration by pacing around the Washington Monument and reading books about D-Day, including Cornelius Ryan’s “The Longest Day.” She ultimately adapted the speech’s most memorable line from the title of the baseball classic, “The Boys of Summer.”

Max Boot, author of “Reagan: His Life and Legend,” a forthcoming biography, called the address one of the highlights of his presidency.

“It was one of the greatest presidential speeches of the postwar era,” Mr. Boot said this week. “It’s an impossible standard for Biden to aspire to. But it’s also an opportunity for him to remind listeners of the days when Republicans like Ronald Reagan were the foremost champions of NATO rather than its most fervent critics.”

Mr. Reagan was in far stronger shape politically than Mr. Biden is now. He held a nine-point lead over Mr. Mondale in a survey in early June, a margin that nearly doubled to 17 points later that month, according to a Gallup poll tracker. Mr. Biden, by contrast, is more-or-less tied with Mr. Trump in several polls released in recent days. Mr. Biden is also eight years older than Mr. Reagan was at the time, and age has become an even bigger electoral challenge for him than it was for his predecessor.

Some analysts thought it was ill advised for Mr. Biden to try to emulate Mr. Reagan.

“Seems odd to choose the site where Reagan gave his best speech,” said Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a former aide to President George W. Bush. It only “invites unwelcome comparisons.”

Mr. Biden’s address, according to aides, was crafted by his speech-writing team along with his longtime adviser Mike Donilon and the historian Jon Meacham, who is in Normandy for the ceremonies. Aides said it was meant as a speech to the American people and was timed for the end of the day in France so that it will broadcast at midday back at home.

“The Pointe du Hoc speech is a speech about, in his view, timeless principles — principles that have served as the foundation of American security and American democracy for generations,” Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, told reporters.

Principles may be timeless, but politics are not. Mr. Biden was not always a fan of Mr. Reagan’s foreign policy. In a speech at Harvard in 1987 as a senator planning his first run for president, Mr. Biden lashed out at Mr. Reagan’s “military adventures” and said “the Reagan Doctrine is in tatters,” adding, “I’ve given up on this administration.”

But that was then, and this is now. Mr. Reagan is by many venerated, and Mr. Trump is on the ballot. For Mr. Biden, one certainly looks more palatable than the other. He has not given up on Mr. Reagan’s administration after all. Now he wants to harness it.

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