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Funeral Rights

Claim:   Item recounts an exchange between a White House Marine guard and a VFW member.

MIXTURE

Examples:   [Collected via e-mail, February 2009]

An old man wearing a VFW hat walked up to the White House from across Pennsylvania Avenue, where he'd been sitting on a park bench. He spoke to the Marine standing guard and said, "I would like to go in and meet with President Bush."

The Marine replied, "Sir, President Bush is no longer in office. He doesn't live here anymore."

The old man said, "Okay," and walked away.

The following day, the very same man approached the White House and said to the same Marine, "I would like to go in and meet with President Bush."

The Marine once again told the veteran, respectfully, "Sir, as I said yesterday, President Bush is no longer in office and doesn't live here anymore."

The man thanked him and again walked away.

The third day, the same man approached the White House and spoke to the very same Marine, saying "I would like to go in and meet with President Bush."

The Marine, understandably agitated at this point, looked at the man and said, "Sir, this is the third day in a row you have been here asking to speak to President Bush. I've told you already that he is no longer in office. He's never coming back. Don't you understand?"

The old veteran answered him, "Oh, I understand perfectly. It just makes me so happy to hear it — he didn't attend the funeral of a single Marine killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, you know."

The Marine snapped to attention, saluted, and said, "Sir, see you tomorrow, sir!"
 

Origins:   All but (part of) one line of this purported exchange between a White House Marine guard and a Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) member is merely another piece of endlessly recycled political humor; we've seen it circulated with the name of every outgoing president since Jimmy Carter in 1981 inserted into the text (and the underlying joke likely antedates the Carter administration by a good many years).

The end of the penultimate line (which has been altered in this 2009 version) does reference a real issue and therefore bears some independent explanation and evaluation, however. President George W. Bush was criticized in some quarters for not having attended the funeral of any U.S. soldier killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan or Iraq during his tenure in office, as noted by Andrew Sullivan in The New Republic:
There's a growing anti-Bush meme that holds that president Bush is a heartless chicken-hawk who wages war recklessly and cares not a whit for the welfare of the soldiers under his command.
Although it may be true in a strictly literal sense that President Bush attended no such funerals, the claim that he refrained from doing so because he callously "didn't care" is not so easily supportable.

In a July 2006 interview with the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, President Bush explained that since he could not possibly attend the funeral of every fallen U.S. soldier, he felt it was more appropriate to express his appreciation privately to service members' families rather than singling out one soldier (or a few soldiers) to honor with public funereal attendance by the president:
In an exclusive interview, Bush sat down with Stars and Stripes to answer questions solicited from U.S. troops now downrange, including the one asking whether he had ever attended a slain soldier's funeral.

President Bush has met hundreds of families of fallen soldiers, but he has yet to attend a servicemember's funeral, he said.

"Because which funeral do you go to? In my judgment, I think if I go to one I should go to all. How do you honor one person but not another?" he said.

The appropriate way to express his appreciation to the family members of fallen troops is to meet with them in private, he said.
Also, as some political commentators such as Charles Krauthammer opined, aside from matters of practicality, there were valid political and military reasons why President Bush was correct to avoid "the juxtaposition of his face and words with pictures of soldiers' coffins":
[The insurgents in Iraq] have only one way of winning: by making U.S. casualties so painful that America decides to give up and go home.

That is the enemy's entire war objective: to inflict pain. And that is why it would be a strategic error to amplify and broadcast that pain by making great public shows
of sorrow presided over by the President himself. In the midst of an ongoing war, a guerrilla war, a war that will be won and lost as a contest of wills, the Commander in Chief — despite what he feels in his heart — must not permit himself to show that he bleeds. He is required to show, yes, a certain callousness. He must appear that way to the insurgents, who will otherwise be encouraged to think their strategy is succeeding and therefore have yet more incentive to keep killing Americans until it does. And he must appear that way to ordinary Iraqis, who will not help us in this fight unless they are sure that the pain of our losses will not drive us out and leave them to the tender mercies of the Saddamites.
Nonetheless, critics such as the New York Times' Andrew Rosenthal maintained that (at least in the early years of the war in Iraq) President Bush — or a high-ranking administration official — should have personally met with a representative of the family of every fallen service member:
Some Republicans say it would take up too much of the president's time to attend military funerals or meet the coffins returning from Iraq. "They're coming back continually," the conservative commentator Bay Buchanan said on CNN. "The president cannot be flying up there every single week."

But someone of rank from the White House could and should be at each and every military funeral. Ideally, Mr. Bush would shake the hand of someone who loved every person who dies in uniform — a small demand on his time in a war in which the casualties are still relatively small. And he has more than enough advisers, cabinet secretaries and other officials so attending funerals should not be such an inconvenience.
Sullivan countered this notion (and the claims that President Bush "treated military casualties cavalierly") by writing that:
Yes, it's a good idea for some officials to attend some funerals when they can. Yes, the president should write every grief-stricken family (as he does). But the main job of government officials should be fighting the war so that fewer casualties result and victory comes sooner rather than later. This is the real way of honoring the fallen: ensuring that their sacrifice is not in vain.

[...]

As to the notion that president Bush does not care about the service members under his command, perhaps the best argument in his defense was the tear running down his cheek [while he visited] Baghdad last week. Yes, some of these photo-ops might benefit him politically. You don't have to be a cynic to acknowledge that. But it is excessive cynicism that wants to argue that this president doesn't care; or that he treats military casualties cavalierly. There's simply no evidence for it.
Last updated:   17 April 2009

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Sources:

    Krauthammer, Charles.   "Why Bush Stays Away."
    Time.   30 November 2003.

    Rosenthal, Andrew.   "Accounting for Invisible Casualties of War Shouldn't Be a Matter of Politics."
    The New York Times.   14 November 2003.

    Schogol, Jeff.   "President Bush Answers Questions from Downrange."
    Stars and Stripes.   5 July 2006.

    Sullivan, Andrew.   "Presidential No Show."
    The New Republic.   2 December 2003.