WASHINGTON -- Michelle had gone up to New York to watch the World Series opener with Jill Biden and Yogi Berra.
The president had dinner at the White House with Sasha and Malia. Then, shortly before midnight, he donned a dark overcoat, boarded Marine One and flew to Dover Air Force Base.
On the tarmac in the darkness, he stood at attention, saluting, as 18 flag-draped cases were taken off an Air Force C-17 and carried to Port Mortuary by military teams in camouflage fatigues and black berets.
The Halloween-eve parade of death included casualties from America's most horrific day in Afghanistan in four years, and its bloodiest month of the war.
It may have been a photo op, another way Obama could show he was not W., the president who started the Iraq war in a haze of fakery and then declined to ever confront the reality of its dead.
Certainly, as Obama tries to figure out how to avoid being a war president when he's saddled with two wars, he wants as much military cred in the bank as he can get.
But it was also a genuinely poignant moment. It is how we want our presidents to behave, doing the humane thing especially when it's hard. And Obama, who called it "a sobering reminder" of sacrifices made, signaled to Americans that he will resist blinders as he grapples with the byzantine, seemingly bottomless conflicts he inherited.
Leave it to Liz Cheney, in her continuing bid to out-Cheney her scary dad, to suggest that Obama is a crass publicity-seeker.
"I think that what President Bush used to do is do it without the cameras," she told a Fox News radio host.
She's right: There were no press cameras at Dover in the previous administration. There was also no W.
While Bush occasionally visited the wounded and the families of those killed, he never went to Dover to salute the fallen. And he barred any media coverage of it, trying to airbrush the evidence that the wars he started were not the cakewalks he had promised. He did not attend a single funeral. It reflected an emotional and spiritual smallness typical of his administration, like Donald Rumsfeld signing letters to families of dead troops with an autopen.
Dona Griffin of Terre Haute, Ind., the mother of Army Sgt. Dale Griffin, who was among those Obama saluted, appreciated the president's presence.
"Unless we can see the images and look into the eyes and the faces of those that are sacrificing, we forget," she said on "Good Morning America."
As Obama conducts his White House seminar on war, Dick Cheney accuses him of dithering. He and W. not only didn't dither before Iraq, they never bothered to ask "Whither?" Debate and due diligence were for sissies.
President Obama bore witness just as he is deciding whether to accede to Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for up to 80,000 more troops in Afghanistan.
He should keep in mind Cyrus Vance's warning before President Carter decided to send a Delta team to rescue the Iranian hostages (an ill-fated decision that provoked Vance's resignation as secretary of state). "Generals will rarely tell you they can't do something," he said. "This is a complex damn operation, and I haven't forgotten the old saying from my Pentagon days that in the military, anything that can go wrong will go wrong."
Barack Obama, the wunderkind who came out of nowhere to win the presidency, was supposed to push America out of the ditch and into a glittering future. But modernity is elusive when you're in a time machine to the 14th century called Afghanistan.
As Obama comforted families at a tragic moment, he also had to contemplate a tragic dimension of his own presidency: It's nice to talk about change, but you can't wipe away yesterday.
Obama wants to be the cosmopolitan president of the world, and social engineer at home to improve the lives of Americans.
But what he had in mind for renovating American society hinged on spending a lot of money on energy, education, the environment and health care. Instead, he has been trapped in the money pits of a recession and two wars. For now, the man who promised revolution will have to settle for managing adversity.
It is, as Yogi Berra said, "deja vu all over again."