General Kelly's Stand
(This piece is a continuation of, Bixby to Kelly: A Call for a Fallen Son).
And respond he did. Coerced by circumstance and directed by decorum, Chief of Staff John Kelly stood before the press on Thursday to address the matter. His wont to avoid loquacity and public appearances finally yielded to political necessity. Soon after Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders concluded her introductory remarks, Kelly took to the stage. There in the briefing room, standing front and center where usually he is least comfortable, the Chief of Staff delivered an extraordinary speech.
His words were, for the most part, extraordinary because of their poignancy and tact. This is what we’ve come to expect from Kelly, who bears the burden of being this administration’s moral rudder. It’s an un-commissioned and under-appreciated role, but such is the life of the barnacled yet indispensable rudder; it places him forever beneath the surface and to the insuperable task of steadying the White House’s wayward turns. It’s his stoic solemnity and morality that we hope will steer the ship straight.
He began his remarks by describing the process whereby a soldier killed in action is treated in the field. He did so with neither prompt nor script. As a former Marine general, Kelly is uniquely privy to these painful details. He, more than most, knows intimately the macabre proceedings and explained them with mechanical acumen. With exacting detail, he described how a soldier, once pronounced dead at the scene, is quickly packaged in ice and transported to the European continent. It is there that the hors de combat corpse is chilled again. When sufficiently preserved, the soldier’s final transit begins. He is delivered westward—home.
Once stateside, the deceased serviceman is taken to Dover Air Force base in Delaware, where America’s largest military mortuary awaits. There, he is meticulously examined and embalmed. He is honorably dressed in his final accoutrements, which are immortalized with the iridescent additions of the Purple Heart or Gold Star. Properly outfitted, he is flown home to be venerated and laid to rest. A community mourns, a widow cries, and America gives her fugacious thanks to a young man’s sacrifice. The new entombment thus complete, the soldier lies in peace. While he deserves our diurnal respect, he’ll await our passing appreciation on Memorial Day instead of Veterans Day.
Kelly’s description was far from dramaturgical. He covered the process with surgical sobriety and forced those listening to recognize just how sad and real the process is. He provided the audience before him and Americans tuning in an image rarely seen in the military film. He showed what follows the soldier who pays the ultimate price. He cut through, if only for a moment, the political miasma that has since suffocated these soldiers’ deaths. The tragic part about this past week, aside from four young soldiers’ untimely deaths—which few chose to focus on—was that their stories were subordinate to another narrative. Kelly re-directed our attention and compelled us to think about the corporal implications of a patriot dying in combat.
This, he covered in the speech’s emotional strophe. The antistrophe and epode that followed were at best, unexpected, and at worst, exceptionable. He lamented the loss of yesteryear’s sanctity. He included in his list the following forsaken institutions: women, religion, and life. These three things get to the heart of every conservative’s discontent—not only in this generation, but perhaps throughout all of history. A conservative, in the purest, apolitical sense seeks above all to preserve the pillars upon which the culture is built. But culture, being the chameleon that it is, is forever riddled with radicals revolting for change and conservatives seeking stasis.
While it’s perfectly permissible to miss these institutions in the way Kelly does, one can’t help but feel like he was speaking in bad faith. Perhaps that term is too strong, or inappropriately applied, but it’s the first that comes to mind. Consider how General Kelly’s boss, President Trump, has approached these impenetrable institutions in the past. From Megyn Kelly, to Rosie O’Donnell, to Carly Fiorina, to Heidi Cruz, to Miss America adolescents, all culminating ignominiously in the Access Hollywood tape, Mr. Trump has played no small part in damaging womankind’s worth this year.
As far as religion is concerned, I think it’s safe to say Trump is more Epicurean than Nazarene. He hasn’t made a career of doing the lord’s work, and I see no camels fitting through needle eyes. Trump deigns to one deity and one alone—it’s the supernatural, omnisciently orange moue returning his gaze in the mirror. That said, he did humbly rank one book ahead of The Art of the Deal. The gospels might have Trump beat in both substance, syntax, and sales, but you have to admit, they’ve had an astonishing head start. As for life, I can’t see where Trump has recently failed to uphold it. Though he once favored abortion, he’s now committed to its alternative.
And as for gold-star families, which Kelly mentioned fourth on his list of sacred things of yore, Trump was the prime mover to politicize them. Who can forget his infamous defamation of Khizir Khan, the Gold Star father of Army Captain Humayun Khan. You’ll recall from last summer’s DNC convention, the elder Khan inveighed against Trump while waving a pocket-sized Constitution at the camera. Trump fought back and said his “sacrifices” in the New York business world were tantamount to a serviceman’s sacrifices abroad. This tit for tat was the first in recent memory featuring a presidential candidate actively attacking a Gold Star family.
With this in mind, Kelly’s comments fizzled a bit; they were heartfelt but inescapably hollow. I lament the loss of these sanctified institutions as much as he does, but unlike him, I don’t work for the man who has tarnished more than a few of them on more than a few occasions. Trump may yet improve upon these shortcomings, and I hope that he does (though my hope is guarded when I think about old dogs and new tricks). The irony was that while Kelly listed these lost institutions, he reminded us of who most defiled them in the past twenty-four months.
General Kelly then addressed the puerile pestilence that has engulfed the week. He spoke directly about Frederica Wilson, the Democratic congresswoman from Florida best known for her fantastically distracting array of hats. The Floridian fashionista is seldom seen in public without sequins adorning every inch and sundry, color-coordinated accessories draped head to toe. But this week, it wasn’t her ostentatious panache at the center of attention. She caused a stir when she spoke to the press about President Trump’s phone call to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson. Sgt. Johnson was one of four servicemen killed in Niger under suspect circumstances. He, unlike his three compatriots, was retrieved days later and miles away from the ambush’s site.
While en route to the airport to receive her husband’s casket, Myeshia spoke on the phone with President Trump. This exchange, which he had promised to the make earlier that day, sparked an unanticipated controversy.
In the car, Myeshia had by her side Representative Wilson and her late husband’s guardian, Cowanda Jones-Johnson. She answered Trump’s call on speakerphone. You could say it’s imprudent to do this and I’d meekly agree. I think a call from the president is privileged and demands special privacy, but speakerphone, much like Snapchat and autonomic tweets, are all ingredients in modernity’s recipe.
Soon after the conversation was over, Representative Wilson divulged its contents. Its details were only too easily spun to shine a damning light on President Trump. She recounted that Myeshia was told by Trump that her beloved “knew what he was signing up for, but I guess it hurts anyway”. Would these words cut it for a condolence card? Even the least lachrymose would think not. But it’s clear Trump meant no harm with what he said. Reasonably read, he is saying that—like all servicemen before and after him who make this most vital sacrifice—Johnson knew that when he signed his future to the armed forces, this supremely sad potential lurked. In my assessment, it’s this reality that adds to a soldier’s mystic intrepidity, and deserves our veneration all the more.
For whatever reason, this message—that I think Trump intended but made inadequately clear—wasn’t well received. Frederica Wilson was quick to excoriate the president for having spoken so callously. She endlessly inveighed against him for all to hear. In response, because one forever must follow (Trump’s personality proves Newton’s third law), President Trump tweeted, “Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!”.
While it’s likely Wilson used this opportunity for an expedient political attack, Trump didn’t need to engage in this way. He might have taken Wilson’s words on the chin (which, ironically, were his own) and doubled down with contrition. He could’ve iterated in even stronger terms his personal sorrow, without succumbing to yet another personal spat. But his wonted “doubling down” took its reliable form and the president began his war with Wilson.
It turns out that Wilson did not fabricate Trump’s call. Sgt. Johnson’s guardian, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, corroborated Wilson’s account. She went further to say that the president “disrespected her son” and made Myeshia, the grieving military widow, cry. It was most important, however, to her from Myeshia herself. Today, she broke her silence and averred that Wilson and her mother-in-law’s accounts were accurate.
That said, the three certainly didn’t fabricate their retellings of Trump’s words. And as for the president’s “proof”, he’s persistently over-playing this hand. It was only months ago he alleged possession of tapes that would’ve augured ill for FBI Director Jim Comey. Said tapes and Trump’s proof didn’t exist.
At long last, we’re brought back to General Kelly. For the final part of his speech, he devoted his time to attacking Representative Wilson. His words were memorable, but above all, they were mendacious. He recounted a story from 2015, when he attended an FBI building’s dedication in Florida. Wilson, at that time a potent political voice but not yet an elected official in D.C., was one of the ceremony’s speakers.
Kelly told the gathered press corps of an appalling tale of Wilson’s audacity. He claimed that she hijacked the dedication ceremony in order to pat herself on the back. Based on his account, Ms. Wilson stood up on stage to flaunt the fact that she alone obtained $20 million in funding from President Obama to fund the building. The Sun-Sentinel, a local Florida newspaper, provided video that wholly refuted Kelly’s claim. In it, Wilson is heard to be rather gracious and apolitical. Never did she mention funding nor claim credit for securing it.
Is Trump’s tendency for taraddidles becoming contagious in this administration? I’m no diagnostician, but this seems to be the case. If a man like Kelly, who’s the last bastion of morality, can succumb to lying, a final hope for integrity could be lost. General Kelly would serve himself and the public discourse well if he came out and admitted his mistake. So far, he has not, and there’s no sign he will. At the very least though, it might be said, he hasn’t doubled down.