Friday, October 20, 2017

Four American Deaths Spark Another Controversy

They were surprised by the ferocity of the attack that claimed their lives. Questions about prior intelligence. Questions about how quickly military support could reach them. Questions about how and what the families of the fallen Americans were told.

No, I am not referring to the 2012 deaths in Benghazi of four foreign service professionals and the prolonged multiple investigations by a Republican-controlled Congress set on besmirching the integrity of Secretary of State and eventual Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

No, these deaths occurred October 4 in Niger, an African country I would venture to say perhaps one percent of Americans could locate on a map and probably fewer knew we had military personnel stationed there fighting Islamic militants.

One wonders how diligent and aggressive the still-GOP-controlled Congress will be in purusing the tragic events and pursuing accountability. We can only hope that statements about the need for committee hearings will produce more than momentary soundbites.

Into this now politically charged sadness comes White House chief of staff and retired Marine general John F. Kelly, not by his own volition but rather because of the extraordinary but now seemingly day to day bad and/or clumsy behavior of his boss, Donald Trump, who chose to politicize the conveyance of solace and a nation’s gratitude to the families of fallen soldiers. 

Kelly is a good soldier. By that I don’t mean he is a good tactician or a good leader of men. He probably is. Rather, he is a “good” soldier in the sense that no matter what his commanding officer says or does he will not disavow him. He will not criticize him. He will give him cover to continue behavior that is inappropriate. Maybe like what Quentin Tarantino just admitted to in the Harvey Weinstein scandal ( Hears evil. Sees evil but speaks no evil. Washington and Hollywood: two peas in a pod.

You don’t become a four-star general merely by way of military expertise. Politics plays a part. Schmoozing up your superiors. Making nice to elected officials. Press reports bend over backwards describing Kelly as above the political fray of instigator-in-chief Trump roiling the waters with whomever he has a beef, be it on legitimate matters of policy or personal peccadilloes transformed into public shaming and bullying. 

Throughout it all Kelly has remained steadfast. He dismisses as inaccurate reflections pictures of him pained and distraught as the fulminator-in-chief goes off on one of his tirades. He’s never considered resigning, he says.

But his defense of Trump’s conversation with the widow and family of Sergeant La David T. Johnson, killed in Niger, and his attack on a Democratic congresswoman has opened Kelly to the contentious nature of American politics. Kelly is learning that his words are subject to parsing, as well. He got caught in a big mistake when he wrongly criticized Rep. Frederica S. Wilson for taking credit for securing funding for an F.B.I. building in Miami named for fallen agents ( 

Here’s an example of what can and has gone wrong. From Thursday’s New York Times: “Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, said Mr. Kelly’s blunt remarks will have impact because of the stark contrast with an administration that has repeatedly lost credibility with the public.

“‘Its great power was you knew he was telling the truth, and in all specifics,’ said Ms. Noonan, a Wall Street Journal columnist. ‘Kelly comes to the podium and it was credible, and you felt a kind of relief, and respect and gratitude.’” 

I wonder what Noonan thinks now. I wonder how quickly Kelly will come to Trump’s defense the next time—and you can bet the farm there will be a next time—the provocateur-in-chief strains credulity.

My Man McCain: Let’s be grown up about this: Politicians generally are not the most upstanding, unselfish, heroic individuals. Their main pursuit in life is self aggrandizement, most visibly demonstrated by their quest for election, then reelection, through often sleazy deals with benefactors and policy positions crafted to appeal to narrow interest groups that do not necessarily have the public good as their paramount interest.

Which brings us to John McCain. He is an exasperating politician. He is a conservative Republican which implies a proclivity toward defense spending and a less than robust ratification of entitlement programs. Yet he has moments when he is downright noble and heroic.

In 2008 he rebuffed a supporter of his presidential bid after she claimed Barack Obama was not an American or a Christian, that he was “an Arab.”

“No ma’am,” McCain said. “He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”

“He is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as president,” McCain said. “If I didn’t think I’d be one heck of a better President I wouldn’t be running, and that’s the point. I admire Sen. Obama and his accomplishments, I will respect him. I want everyone to be respectful, and let’s make sure we are. Because that’s the way politics should be conducted in America.”

With his last sunset visible on the horizon because of an aggressive brain cancer (the same type that felled Ted Kennedy), the 81-year-old Navy veteran, prisoner of (Vietnam) war hero, U.S. congressman and senator from Arizona and Republican presidential candidate has a biography that will fill a full page of a broadsheet newspaper. In many ways he is like Obama, “a decent person.” 

But I would be scared if he were president because for every intrepid vote to deny the elimination of Obamacare, McCain falls back into party discipline to, for example, support a budget that would reward the rich and gut assistance programs for the needy. From my perspective he keeps switching too often from occasional white hat to near constant black hat.

Tributes to McCain keep poring in. Here’s one from David Brooks in The Times ( And his speech the other night when he accepted the 2017 Liberty Medal Award from the National Constitution Center was a stinging critique of the current state of national leadership and its withdrawal from what made America great. Here’s video of his remarks:

Perhaps it would be appropriate if McCain had a one-on-one chat with Kelly. Someone, after all, needs to tell the general when it is his duty to correct his superior, even a president. For the sake of the country.