AMAC Exclusive by Andrew Abbott
This Christmas Eve, President Joe Biden will presumably honor one of America’s simplest and most revered traditions. Each year, the president calls a service member from each military branch standing on duty, far from home, wishes them a Merry Christmas, and thanks them for their service. In recent years, the tradition has evolved into presidents video conferencing with entire groups of servicemembers, or even traveling to military bases or warzones. Amid all the politics and partisan bickering, the Commander-in-Chief taking the time to individually call rank and file service members and thank them for sacrificing precious moments with their families to stand watch for America’s safety has become one of the great Christmas traditions in our country.
That tradition began in late November 1984. President Ronald Reagan had just won Forty-Nine out of Fifty states in one of the most sweeping presidential victories in American history. Nevertheless, the campaign had been a brutal and bruising fight that made the holiday season a welcome respite for Reagan and his administration. To that end, White House Chief Speechwriter Anthony Dolan and White House Military Office Director Edward Hickey were both relishing the thought of repose and relaxation in the coming weeks.
Somewhere in discussing their holiday plans, they caught themselves ruminating on those serving overseas during the holidays. The men, both of whom had served in the military, knew the unnoticed burdens shouldered and unsung heroism exhibited daily by our service members. It was then that Dolan mused, “What if the President gives a member of each service a call?” He would not call a senior officer or release a generic appreciation video. Instead, Dolan wondered, what if he specifically spoke to a Soldier, Sailor, Marine, Airman, and Coastguardsman currently standing a post overseas and away from their families? Hickey pounced on the idea.
While Dolan and Hickey were discussing it, they both realized that the White House bureaucracy often slowed things down. Every federal employee, from presidents to postal workers to peacekeepers, knows full well the glacial speed at which the federal administrative process often moves. Not even the White House is immune from the morass of red tape that bedevils bureaucracy.
Yet Hickey, a career public servant, wasn’t just concerned about tedious paperwork slowing this idea down. In the post-Vietnam era, any statement or action that celebrated the American military was suspect at best, and political suicide at worst. The “consultant class” of Washington D.C. cautioned legislators that being seen as too “pro-military” was terrible optics. There were even a few aides and advisors who thought it was bad for the president’s image. Reagan felt differently.
To remedy this, they didn’t exactly go around the staffing process (Dolan helped Hickey draft a Military Office proposal memo), but instead of simply “sending it up the chain,” Hickey, who had a long-standing relationship with Reagan going back many years, went directly to the president. Reagan, as expected, was gleefully enthusiastic. Dolan said of the conversation, “Reagan was just beaming about the idea and Ed and I laughed later about how unsurprising that was. I mean Reagan and the military on Christmas Eve was perfect.”
Throughout his life, Reagan openly and aggressively defended and celebrated the men and women who risked their lives to defend this nation. On the campaign trail in August of 1980, he addressed the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention in Chicago. In the days leading up to the speech, his consultants constantly attempted to stop the presidential candidate from calling the Vietnam War a “noble cause.” Every time they removed it, Reagan added it back in.
When the day came, then-candidate Reagan stood by his words and said our veterans “deserve our gratitude, our respect, and our continuing concern.” The message touched millions of Americans whose sacrifice during the war was treated as a mark of shame by other politicians. Dolan said this act showed that “something about Reagan made military families react to him.”
His affirmation of our military didn’t end on the campaign trail, though. He was the first president in the modern era to return the salute of military personnel, another tradition carried on by subsequent presidents when boarding the presidential plane or helicopter. He was also the first President to speak at the D-Day memorial in Normandy on June 6th. And on Christmas Eve 1984, following Hickey and Dolan’s suggestion, he called five service members on duty abroad, and then he called their parents. To Dolan, this was a seminal moment for American morale: “What a break this was from the post-Vietnam world,” he said.
Every president since has honored this tradition (although most now do video calls with overseas units selected by the White House Military Office). In 2021, the true gravity of this act is doubly essential. Following the surrender in Afghanistan, reports of wokeness infecting every level of the military, and now military personnel being discharged over unconstitutional vaccine mandates, the morale of the United States Armed Forces is of grave concern. The President individually thanking our troops on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day is about more than the conversation. It was, and is, an affirmation from the highest levels of American leadership that, no matter how bureaucrats or politicians may fail them, the Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, Coastguardsmen, and now Guardians who defend our nation are heroes. Now, just as was the case in 1984, that message is sorely needed.
Andrew Abbott is the pen name of a writer and public affairs consultant with over a decade of experience in DC at the intersection of politics and culture.