Fact Check

Did President Obama Decline to Lay Wreaths on Memorial Day?

Critics falsely claimed that Barack Obama was the only U.S. president not to lay a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day.

Published May 25, 2010

 (Jim Bowen/Flickr)
Image courtesy of Jim Bowen/Flickr
Barack Obama was the only U.S. president not to lay a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day.

Memorial Day, now observed on the last Monday of May, is the day of the year set aside for Americans to commemorate the men and women of the United States who died while in the military service. On Memorial Day the President of the United States traditionally visits Arlington National Cemetery, where America's honored dead are interred, to deliver a speech in remembrance of those who died in service to their country and to lay a memorial wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

President Obama's decision to spend the 2010 Memorial Day weekend in Chicago rather than attending memorial services in Arlington engendered claims that he thus became the first U.S. president to skip the Arlington wreath-laying ceremony since the inception of Memorial Day:

Mike Savage stated that President Obama was not going to Arlington this Memorial Day but is sending VP Biden in his place. Obama is going to Chicago instead. Savage stated that this is the first time in history that a President has not laid a wreath at Arlington on Memorial day.

This claim was inaccurate: On several occasions in just the last thirty years, U.S. presidents have been elsewhere on Memorial Day (either vacationing or attending to different presidential duties) while other administration officials represented them at the wreath-laying ceremony:

  • In 2002, President George W. Bush was in France on Memorial Day and participated in ceremonies at Normandy (site of the D-Day landings) honoring the U.S. soldiers who fought and died in World War II. In his place, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
  • President George H.W. Bush (himself a World War II veteran) attended no ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery during his four years in office. In 1989 he was in Rome on Memorial Day (where he led observances at an American military cemetery south of that city), and from 1990 through 1992 he spent the Memorial Day weekend vacationing in Kennebunkport, Maine, while Vice-President Dan Quayle laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
  • President Ronald Reagan was away from Arlington on Memorial Day on four occasions during his eight years in office: In 1981, Reagan (having been seriously wounded in an assassination attempt six weeks earlier) spent the Memorial Day weekend at his ranch in Santa Barbara, California, while Vice-President George H.W. Bush laid the wreath at Arlington. In 1983, he attended a summit meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia, while Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Thayer represented the administration at the wreath-laying ceremony. In 1987, Reagan spent Memorial Day at the Camp David presidential retreat while Navy Secretary James Webb participated in the wreath-laying ceremony. And on Memorial Day 1988, he was out of the U.S., attending a summit meeting in Moscow.
  • Bill Clinton was the only U.S. President in the last 30+ years to have attended Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington every year throughout his term of office.

On Memorial Day 2010, President Obama was scheduled to honor America's fallen heroes with a speech at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery near Chicago, while Vice-President Joe Biden took his place at Arlington; however, a thunderstorm in Illinois interrupted the former ceremony, and President Obama returned to Washington to deliver his speech at Andrews Air Force Base. With the exception of that one year, President Obama has participated in wreath-laying ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery every Memorial Day (2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016) during his administration.


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