“Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” by The Ramones

These days, Ronald Reagan is respected by nearly everyone except for the far left–the guys who pass out newspapers on campus asking you if you’re interested in revolutionary politics, and, if their writing skills are good enough, go on to work for Rolling Stone and The Nation.

This was not always the case.  Like all great presidents, Reagan made tough decisions, and tough decisions inevitably piss some people off.  The far left wanted nuclear disarmament, many in the center-left to center-right favored détente with the Soviet Union, and Reagan said, implicitly, fuck all that.  Or to quote the man in his own words, “Here’s my strategy on the Cold War: We win, they lose.”

Most of Reagan’s hard decisions paid off, as a large percentage of his former political opponents now recognize.

But even the greatest of presidents make bad decisions.  Lincoln appointed many wrong generals to lead the war effort before anointing the right one in Ulysses S. Grant.  FDR interned American citizens of Axis-country descent and tried to rig the Supreme Court.

Reagan’s biggest blunder was probably his handling of Lebanon.  Some would also argue Iran-Contra, but the long-term fallout from that affair does not appear to me to be significant.  His visit to the Bitburg Cemetery pales in comparison to either, but it was a disaster at the time, even if the incident is nearly forgotten today.

In 1985, Reagan and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl agreed that Reagan would visit a German military cemetery as part of Reagan’s European tour to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of V-E (Victory in Europe) Day.  This would demonstrate the reconciliation between the two former foes.

After the agreement but before the visit, it came to light that of the 2,000 or so graves, 49 belonged to soldiers who were members of the Waffen-SS.  This set off a firestorm of protest.  Jewish groups were understandably angry, as were veterans groups, and they were far from the only ones.

Reagan was in a bind. Canceling the visit would be seen as deeply offensive by our ally West Germany. Going through with the visit would enrage many others both domestically and internationally.  Reagan wanted out, but in the end decided that he had to go through with it.

Reagan had a great appreciation of the horrors of the Holocaust. Seeing films of concentration camps in 1945 had a deep impact on his psyche, and he talked of those films and their impact on him many times. (Witnesses say that on a couple of occasions he claimed to have actually been at the camps and taken the films himself, which I suspect was a miscommunication on the part of the Great Communicator–Reagan was a public figure in 1945 and it was well known that he served in the Army stateside because the military would not send him overseas due to his eyesight.)  Having Holocaust survivors and the American soldiers who had liberated them angry at him and accusing him of being disrespectful of their past must have stung deeply.

Reagan had not wanted to draw attention to the Holocaust on an occasion that was supposed to be about reconciliation with the country where it was perpetrated, but a visit to the former site of a concentration camp was added to the schedule.  Speaking at that site, Reagan said:

All these children of God, under bleak and lifeless mounds, the plainness of which does not even hint at the unspeakable acts that created them. Here they lie, never to hope, never to pray, never to live, never to heal, never to laugh, never to cry…. And then, rising above all this cruelty, out of this tragic and nightmarish time, beyond the anguish, the pain and suffering, and for all time, we can and must pledge: never again.

I don’t know how many people’s feelings those and other words Reagan spoke during this disastrous visit soothed, but Dee Dee and Joey Ramone were not among them, because they then wrote “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg.”  The lyrics are worth quoting in their entirety.  Read along as you play the song (posted below):

You’ve got to pick up the pieces,
C’mon, sort your trash,
You better pull yourself back together,
Maybe you’ve got too much cash.

Better call, call the law,
When you gonna turn yourself in? Yeah,
You’re a politician,
Don’t become one of Hitler’s children.

Bonzo goes to Bitburg then goes out for a cup of tea,
As I watched it on TV, somehow it really bothered me.
Drank in all the bars in town for an extended foreign policy,
Pick up the pieces.

My brain is hanging upside down
I need something to slow me down

Shouldn’t wish her happiness, wish her the very best,
Fifty-thousand dollar dress,
Shaking hands with your Highness

See through you like cellophane,
You watch the world complain,
But you do it anyway,
Who am I, am I to say?

Bonzo goes to Bitburg then goes out for a cup of tea,
As I watched it on TV, somehow it really bothered me.
Drank in all the bars in town for an extended foreign policy,
Pick up the pieces.

My brain is hanging upside down
I need something to slow me down

If there’s one thing that makes me sick
It’s when someone tries to hide behind politics.
I wish that time could go by fast
Somehow they manage to make it last

My brain is hanging upside down
I need something to slow me down.

What strikes me most about this song is the sense of betrayal. And I suppose it’s understandable. Unfortunately for President Reagan, he had put himself in a position where no matter what he did, he was going to betray someone.

Playing guitar on this song must have driven Johnny Ramone, a conservative Republican and great admirer of Ronald Reagan, crazy. I’m glad he sucked it up and did it anyway. As a huge admirer of Reagan myself, I think the Ramones and everyone else should have cut him some slack. But bad politics can make for great art, and, in the case of “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” it did.  It’s one of the greatest songs the Ramones ever recorded.

I guess we can say this about President Reagan’s ill-advised trip to the cemetery at Bitburg–at least one good thing came out of it.

I should add that the shots that (I think) are directed at Nancy Reagan in the second verse are entirely unwarranted.  She was opposed to the visit.

(I have drawn on the Wikipedia article on Bitburg and Lou Cannon’s President Reagan in writing this piece.)

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