By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Ret. General John Kelly’s lengthy defense of Donald Trump tarnished his own reputation, dishonored the memory of his brave son, smeared the name of a respected Congresswoman and did nothing to to exonerate Trump from the charge of (1) falsifying the record of his predecessors and (2) inflicting gratuitous pain on the widow of an American serviceman killed in action.
What led Mr. Kelly to lose the moral compass that guided him through a distinguished military career? What made him forget that a soldier is under no obligation to obey an improper command? How could he be so stupid as to propagate a lie that was so easy to disprove? Above all, how could he imagine that any kind of lying for Donald Trump was an appropriate way to honorably discharge his duties as Chief of Staff? I can’t figure it out—unless the poor guy was set up and didn’t have time to fact check the script he was handed. In that case, a yet to be heard apology might rescue his reputation Also needed: an apology by the script writer, whose head would roll in a normal administration. So far, however, not a peep of contrition from anyone, including the President.
The Missing Apology
A normal, compassionate person, having discovered that his phrasing had distressed a Gold Star widow he’d meant to comfort, would have—instinctively, instantly—apologized for being so clumsy at expressing condolences. After a few more kind and comforting words, a gracious President would have concluded, “And I am so glad that Congresswoman Wilson is supporting you in your hour of need.” That fairy tale scenario would have brought an immediate end to the story. Donald Trump would have emerged with a halo.
Instead, the Knight of the Wounded Ego went to battle, accusing Congresswoman Wilson of improperly eavesdropping on an intimate conversation and then—horrors!—politicizing it. Mr. Kelly, unfortunately, piled on with the politicization charges before he foolishly (and, I suspect, spontaneously) harked back to a supposed golden age of greater delicatesse.
But whoa! Nothing the President says to anyone, except possibly to Melania, is private, even though it might be, for a period of time, classified. What’s more, since the Congresswoman was present as a friend and counselor, it was entirely fitting and natural that she would be party to the conversation and to Mrs. Johnson’s pained reaction. The original misunderstanding was unfortunate, but Ms. Wilson was no more guilty of politicizing grief than was a President who sought to inflate his own approval rating by falsely denigrating his predecessors. To Ms. Wilson’s indignation a wiser President would have responded, “I’m so sorry that I inadvertently added to the grief of your friend and constituent. Let’s join in consoling her.”
Once again, end of story? Of course not.
Why, I wonder, did the President find it so hard to be generous and gracious in this emotionally fraught, but essentially ceremonial situation? There, is of course, the usual psychological explanation: his fragile ego needs incessant bolstering. The King of the Mountain has to win every time.
But there’s a further reason for Trump’s supercilious dissing of a handsome young hero, his newly widowed wife and Congresswoman Wilson. They are all persons of color, like Barack Obama, whose record Donald Trump is working so strenuously to erase.
Waiting impatiently for U.S. publications to make note of that ugly little fact last week, I’d almost decided to perch on that precarious limb all by myself, when a little web surfing revealed that a British publication had got there first—and with a powerful headline: “A Fallen Black Soldier Being Disrespected? That’s no aberration in America.”
The Guardian didn’t just lash out. Its writers did some homework, the sad gist of which is this: American military culture perfectly reflects the civilian culture it draws from: in war after war, in the Army, in the Navy, Blacks are disproportionately disciplined for identical offenses. As in our pubic schools, I might add. As on our streets and in our courts. So Donald Trump felt free to spar, in public, with a bereaved African-American woman, whose testimony was verified by a witness who would have been instantly credible—if only she too hadn't been Black.
And note that the last time Donald Trump got into a war of words over heroism, he picked a fight with a Gold Star family with roots in Pakistan, thus dishonoring another handsome young officer whose face lacked the orange-tinged, pasty pallor of our Bigot in Chief.
I’m happy to say that soon after the Guardian piece appeared, the American press caught on.
Falling from the Tightrope
As for Mr. Kelly, how sad that misplaced loyalty to an unworthy superior led him to sully the memory of his own son. Almost as bad, in the course of those remarks, Kelly seemed to harbor more sympathy for that tactless boss than for the widow of another fallen soldier. And then, after lying (intentionally or not) about Ms. Wilson, he tacked on a lament for the passing of an era most self-respecting women are happily shed of: the eons of powerlessness when females were stuck on a pedestal.
If Kelly’s so eager to restore the sacred honor of women, how on earth does he rationalize his current position as Chief of Staff to a man who boasts of grabbing pussy?
Kelly began well. If he’d stopped after insisting that Trump was guilty only of saying the right thing clumsily, he’d have been fine. Instead he went on and on, like a man not in his right mind. After months of tightrope walking, he fell, one more decent man who'd lost his honor to Donald Trump’s insatiable ego.
I and many others have been grateful for Mr. Kelly’s service, believing him to be a voice of sanity in Bedlam, trusting him to keep the mad men from destroying the world. But Trump found a weak point, his grief as a father. Trump found it and played on it and now it’s clear that we can no longer depend on him. For his own sake and for the sake of the country, he needs to resign.