The President Comforts a Marine Mom
By WILLIAM MCGURN
The first will be for her son, Lt. Brian McPhillips, killed in action in April 2003 as the First Marine Division fought its way into Baghdad. The other will be for the man on whose orders Lt. McPhillips was sent to Iraq: George W. Bush.
You see, Julie McPhillips knows a side of the president that never seems to make it into the newspapers. Since a meeting in the Oval Office a few years back, the two have exchanged letters, many written in the president's hand. Through the sadness that binds them together, they look eye to eye and let their hearts do the talking.
In my years in the West Wing, I read many horrible things about this president. Some were by former military officers who ought to know better, especially the one who accused him in print of not caring about our war dead. More frequently, legitimate differences over the war led some to indulge in hateful accusations about the man who led it. Few came from people like Julie, who spoke directly with the president about a subject painful for both: the brave young lieutenant who was born to one and laid down his life under the command of the other.
When Mrs. McPhillips came to the White House, she was joined by her husband, David -- a Marine combat vet of Vietnam -- as well as Brian's younger sister, Carolyn. They sat on one of the sofas in the Oval Office. When the president entered the room, he said, "I have two daughters, and I can't imagine what it would be like to meet with the man who was responsible for their death."
"It's comforting," Mrs. McPhillips replied softly. And thence commenced a 45-minute exchange about Brian, about Iraq, about what the president hoped to accomplish in the Middle East, and so on. When the president learned that Carolyn was a teacher, he wrote a note to her kindergarten students, asking them to excuse her for missing class that day. At various points, their conversation was punctuated with observations on the challenges and consolations of faith.
These days our public discourse finds it difficult to handle such talk, and any presidential mention of God is cheapened into a caricature of a man who launches wars on direct orders of the Almighty. In a particularly moving moment, the president spoke of what he did pray for, including the hope that through this "opaque piece of glass," as he put it, people might catch a glimpse of what Christ wants us to be.
That too can be ridiculed, but in fact and in context it was a statement of humility -- a completely orthodox acknowledgment of the responsibility each Christian has to live a life that bears witness to the redemptive love we trace back to that Bethlehem manger.
Lt. McPhillips would have understood that. Often his mother would ask him to remember to pray for the Marines who stood before him in formation. Always he would respond, "I will, Mom."
I was never lucky enough to know Brian McPhillips in life. I know enough, however, to recognize in this Providence College graduate the kind of man you hope would be leading your son if your son were going into battle. The kind of man you pray will be waiting at the altar the day you walk your daughter up the aisle.
These men are not born; they are formed -- by families like the McPhillips, by institutions such as the Marine Corps, and by the convictions that extort sacrifices from any who dare to live by them.
Even so, the holidays can be difficult for these families. These are the days when their thoughts turn to the son whose absence fills the room, the faithful Marine whose little niece will never know the strong and decent man who would have loved and spoiled her in the way only an uncle can.
Yet on a day that celebrates the arrival of hope into our world, the McPhillips refuse to concede the last word to grief. This Christmas, Mr. Bush's last as commander in chief, Mrs. McPhillips would like him to know how grateful they are that Brian served a president who was determined, at great cost to his own popularity, to ensure that their son's sacrifice would not be in vain.
"Mr. President," she says, "Brian was proud to be a Marine. And he carried within him the same light that you do -- a faith in God, in America, and in the dignity and worth of every man, woman, and child on this earth."
"A blessed Christmas for you and your family, Mr. President."
And to yours, Julie McPhillips.