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Cokie Roberts Answers Questions About Presidential Condolence Calls


There is a long history of presidents honoring those who have lost their lives in service to this country. Here's President George W. Bush at a Veterans Day ceremony in Texas in 2007.


GEORGE W. BUSH: In their sorrow, these families needs to know - and families all across our nation of the fallen - need to know that your loved ones served a cause that is good and just and noble.

GREENE: Now, when we talk about the role of the modern president - the job, the work itself - this particular act is not something that often makes headlines, but it did recently after President Trump's call to a widow of a soldier killed in Niger. And that has brought up questions about this sensitive presidential duty. Our co-host Rachel Martin put some of your questions to NPR commentator Cokie Roberts, who joins us each week for our regular feature Ask Cokie about how and why the government does what it does.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: So we've got several listeners who've had questions about this particular practice. Let's get to our first one.

DAVID DETORO: This is David DeToro from Columbia, S.C. I was wondering which president started the trend of calling families instead of just sending a postcard or a note.

MARTIN: Cokie?

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: The tradition of writing to the families of the fallen dates back at least to Lincoln, where he wrote to the parents of men killed in the Civil War. The first was Elmer Ellsworth, who was actually a friend of the Lincoln family and they had his funeral in the East Room of the White House, if you can believe it. But then of course the deaths came by the hundreds of thousands, and so he couldn't write to them all. And of course Franklin Roosevelt had the same problem in World War II. He started writing to the families, but the numbers just got too great.

MARTIN: So another audience member - this is a question from Mary-Claire Maffei, and she tweeted her question, asking, (reading) were condolences other than verbal or written traditionally offered?

ROBERTS: Absolutely. I mean, just in recent years, we have the example of George W. Bush visiting with more than 500 families, and he wrote personal letters to more than 4,000. And he said, as all the presidents do, it's the hardest thing he had to do. Now of course, you know, he's painting portraits of veterans.


ROBERTS: So he's feeling that this is something important in his life. The Obamas went repeatedly to visit the wounded at Walter Reed, and the president went to Dover to receive the remains of soldiers who have been killed and try to comfort the families.

MARTIN: We've got another question from a listener, and this is about another story that came to light. Turns out President Trump had offered to write a personal check for $25,000 to a different family, a family of a fallen soldier named Dillon Baldridge who was killed in Afghanistan this past summer, and finally after many months, after The Washington Post asked if the president had ever delivered on that promise, the White House confirmed that the check was signed actually that very day that the Post made the inquiry. So all of that tees up our next question.

JOHN PRICE: This is John Price from Houston, Texas. Have any other presidents written a personal check to the family of a fallen serviceman?

ROBERTS: Well, again, we don't know since presidents have been private about these things, but we do know that going back to the very beginning, presidents and their wives have helped the veterans and their families. Martha Washington received veterans at her homes in New York and Philadelphia, lobbied the first Congress for veterans benefits. Mary Lincoln visited hospitals and wrote letters home for the soldiers. Pat Nixon flying in an open helicopter over active battlefields in Vietnam to visit wounded soldiers. On and on, up to Michelle Obama touring bases and creating joining forces to help military families because she saw their need.

MARTIN: Commentator Cokie Roberts talking about the ways in which presidents and first ladies have been honoring fallen soldiers. You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work by emailing us at askcokie@npr.org, or you can tweet us with the hashtag #AskCokie.

Cokie, thanks so much, as always.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.