WASHINGTON » Former presidents always make the cut. Ballplayers, never. Senators are case by case.
The question of who, once dead, will lie in honor in the Rotunda of the Capitol is one that rises rarely and usually without the gossamer of political controversy. But the family of the longest surviving U.S. World War I veteran, who died last month at 110, has been rebuffed by the leaders of the House and Senate, who have moved to deny the late soldier his day under the dome.
The family of the veteran, Frank Buckles, assisted by lawmakers from his home state, West Virginia, keeps pressing on. Their desire to see Buckles lie in honor — only federal officials or military officers lie in state in the Rotunda — is not just about him, they insist, but his fellow doughboys, now committed to history books and fading photos.
"The family has not had any confirmation, either official or unofficial, as to whether it will be possible for Buckles to lie in honor to provide a venue for recognition of all of the American World War I veterans," David DeJonge, a spokesman for the family, said Monday in an e-mail. "It is still their wish that this take place in the Rotunda, an appropriate setting given the momentous nature of the passing of the last service member from that war."
The speaker of the House, John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. and Senate majority leader, who together rule the Rotunda, have denied the request without specific explanation, perhaps mindful that the honor has been given to only 30 people since the remains of Sen. Henry Clay graced the elaborate setting in 1852. They have suggested instead that there be a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, a high honor not afforded to every veteran.
"Everyone honors Mr. Buckles’ service to our country, and the extraordinary sacrifices made by every member of our Armed Forces who served in World War I," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., took to the local airwaves on Monday morning to press the case for Buckles. "The congresswoman is strongly pursuing Frank Buckles to lie in honor in the Capitol," said Jamie Corley, her spokeswoman. "This is a matter close to the hearts of many West Virginians, but everyone can appreciate the desire to come together one last time to respect and remember America’s last ‘doughboy."’
Others in the West Virginia delegation have concurred with her and pressed the case in their respective chambers.
Public viewings in the Rotunda have largely been limited to elected officials and distinguished military figures — including 11 presidents — but some exceptions have been made. In 1998, coffins of two Capitol Police officers who died in the line of duty were on display in the Rotunda; Rosa Parks was the third private citizen to lie in honor in the revered spot, in 2005.
Buckles did not see combat; he drove a motorcycle with a sidecar in England, and an ambulance in France. He also escorted German prisoners of war from France to Germany after the war, DeJonge said.
Buckles’ remains are at a funeral home in Washington as his family awaits the outcome. Jon Summers, a spokesman for Reid, said in an e-mail that he and Boehner would be sending a letter asking Defense Secretary Robert Gates to allow the Buckles family to use the amphitheater in Arlington.