ARLINGTON, Va. -- President Bush declared Monday that "America is safer" because of its fighting forces while Sen. John Kerry went to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in somber but historically asymmetrical Memorial Day tributes.
"Through our history, America has gone to war reluctantly," said Bush, speaking at Arlington National Cemetery after laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. "In places like Kabul and Kandahar, in Mosul and Baghdad, we have seen their decency and their brave spirit," he said.
A charcoal sky and light mist hung over the remembrance as if to underscore the solemnity of Bush's speech, Kerry's visit to the Vietnam monument and a parade along historic Independence Avenue. A smattering of World War II veterans marched with people, in some cases three generations younger, capping a weekend highlighted by the formal opening Saturday of the National World War II Memorial.
Frances and John Carter, both 82, were separated by an ocean during World War II; he was a paratrooper and she was a "Rosie the Riveter," one of the thousands of women who went to work at home to support the soldiers abroad.
It was a day when political rhetoric was somewhat muted, eclipsed here by public tributes and the playing of Taps. Bush did take a moment to praise Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld for "your great leadership," however. Rumsfeld has heard calls for his resignation in connection with the prisoner abuse scandal. And Kerry resumed his political campaign in earnest later Monday in Virginia.
Traditional Memorial Day observances including picnics and parades were played out coast to coast -- half a world away from U.S. fighting forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. But overseas, the conflict raged.
American soldiers took time to remember their slain comrades during holiday ceremonies across Iraq.
"When we return to our home stations, we must ensure that we never forget those fallen comrades that deployed with us that will not return to their loved ones," Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the senior U.S. military officer here, said during a ceremony at Baghdad's Camp Victory. "They must not have died in vain," said Sanchez, who is due to rotate out of Iraq soon.
In his speech, Bush singled out some of the dead from Iraq for special commendation:
Capt. Joshua Byers, a West Point man and South Carolina native. "When this son of missionaries was given command of a 120-man combat unit, he wrote to his parents, 'I will give the men everything I have to give,'" Bush said.
Pfc. Jesse Givens of Springfield, Mo., had written to his wife, Melissa: "Do me a favor after you tuck the children in -- give them hugs and kisses from me," the president noted.
Master Sgt. Kelly Hornbeck of Fort Worth, Texas, wrote his parents saying, "I am not afraid and neither should either of you be," Bush said.
"Because of their fierce courage, America is safer, two terror regimes are gone forever and more than 50 million souls now live in freedom," Bush said to a warm applause.
Bush's appearance, by dint of tradition and practice, was a generic tribute to people who have fallen in all U.S. wars past and present, although he particularly cited Iraq. For Kerry, a decorated veteran, it was a day to focus on that conflict of the 1960s and early 70s -- one he would ultimately march and speak against.
Bush gave a speech; Kerry said little as he walked somberly along the shiny black granite wall where the names of the more than 58,000 who fell in Vietnam are etched in time and remembrance. He rubbed his thumb over one of the newest names to be added to the memorial.
"So young," the Massachusetts Democrat mused, as he looked at a photograph of William Bronson, who died in 1976 from a seizure caused by a head wound he had received in 1968. Kerry had worked with the Navy to have Bronson's name added to the wall, and he was joined there by Bronson's mother, Barbara, and other family members.
Kerry waited until he got outside the Capital Beltway to resume normal politics, telling an audience in Portsmouth, Va., that Bush "didn't learn the lessons of our generation in Vietnam."
"I believe I can lead us out of Iraq effectively by accomplishing goals we need to accomplish, but without putting our troops at greater risk," he said in a speech to relatives of servicemen in an area that is home to a host of military bases.
Countered Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt: "John Kerry never misses an opportunity to deliver a political attack. Sadly, that even seems to include Memorial Day, a day of remembrance that should be above politics."