Right-wing media figures are suggesting that President Obama's plan to participate in a Memorial Day event in Chicago and have Vice President Joe Biden lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery is unprecedented and a sign of disrespect to the military. In fact, both Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush had representatives lay wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
In 1983, President Reagan had Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Thayer represent him at the ceremony. A May 30, 1983, Washington Post article reported (from Nexis):
The official commemoration of Memorial Day will take place at Arlington today at 11 a.m. when Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Thayer, representing President Reagan, will lay a wreath at the tomb. A plaque representing the unidentified dead from the Vietnam war will be dedicated and placed at the shrine at 11 a.m.
On May 30, the Associated Press reported that Reagan was at an economic summit that day:
At Arlington National Cemetery, thousands gathered for the traditional wreath-laying ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and a new tomb was dedicated to the 58,000 men who died in the Vietnam War. But that crypt lies empty, because there are no unidentified casualties from the divisive conflict.
President Reagan, continuing his summit meeting in Williamsburg, Va., with leaders of the industrialized democracies, proclaimed Monday "a day of prayer for permanent peace" and called on Americans throughout the country to unite in prayer at 11 a.m.
The next day, the Post reported:
Down a grassy slope from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, in a valley of trees a short distance from where Deputy Secretary of Defense W. Paul Thayer was placing a wreath of carnations yesterday, two women and a girl stood silently before a grave, heads down, arms behind their backs.
While ceremonial guns were booming and ceremonial heels were clicking, while a nation was engaged in formal mourning on a day set aside for that purpose, the two women and the girl were quiet with their own Memorial Day memories.
By the time the formalities were over, and the hundreds of spectators had scattered, the two women and the girl had left. In addressing the crowd, Thayer had said that Memorial Day was a time to "pay tribute to over one million men and women who gave their lives in the armed forces of our land."
Similarly, The Boston Globe reported that on Memorial Day in 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle laid a wreath at the tomb while Bush spoke to American Legion members in Kennebunkport, Maine, and played golf. From a May 26, 1992, Globe article:
Meanwhile, Vice President Dan Quayle, laying a wreath before the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, spoke of patriotic values.
"Unfortunately, today some mock and scorn our reverence for values. They don't seem to grasp the meaning of values - values of freedom, patriotism, duty, honor and country," Quayle said.
Wrapping up his Memorial Day weekend trip, Bush played a final round of golf in chilly weather before delivering his remarks to the American Legion members. His foursome included GOP Gov. John McKernan of Maine.