John Kelly’s politics of grief in the public sphere

Amid the dust storm kicked up by President Trump over the practice of presidents reaching out to families of soldiers killed on the battlefield, Abraham Lincoln’s letters stand out for their serenity and grief. “I have had experience enough to know what I say,” he wrote to one young woman, referencing the death of his own son months before. To another family, he expressed “how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.” Lincoln speaks both as a person who has weathered great loss himself and as someone conscious of the fact that the memory of the dead exists beyond his understanding.

This question of who can know or understand the suffering of a grieving family was the unavoidable theme of Chief of Staff John F. Kelly’s remarks at the White House press briefing Thursday. Describing the burden that contacting families places on a president, Kelly said, “If you’re not in the family, if you’ve never worn the uniform, if you’ve never been in combat, you can’t even imagine how to make that call.” At the end of his statement, Kelly insisted that only reporters who knew families of soldiers killed in combat ask him questions.

Kelly has previously been resolutely private about the death of his son in Afghanistan in 2010. His decision to appear in support of the president after Trump pulled him into an increasingly graceless spat only makes the already sad and ugly news cycle even uglier. The paradox of the argument over Trump’s behavior toward grieving families is that engaging in it at all — whether to support the president or decry his gracelessness — seems to cheapen the issue further.

In watching Kelly speak about his son, we are seeing something terribly intimate made public and political — which, of course, is exactly what Trump has done in feeding this controversy. But Kelly chose not simply to share his grief but to use it to set himself apart from the public even more. He drew a line between those who have known his loss and those who haven’t — and told those on the other side of the line that they couldn’t even understand enough to ask a question. He shielded himself from any criticism of his decision to involve the memory of his son in a political fight. We’re limited in how we can respond. Who are we to tell him how to mourn?

Grief in the public space has this strange double character of both intimacy and distance. We glimpse something private, but as Lincoln understood, the depth of sorrow places the grieving person outside the sphere of common understanding. The same is true when presidents give us a window into their anguish. In Jack Kightlinger’s famous photograph of President Lyndon B. Johnson weeping as he listens to a tape recording from Vietnam, the viewer looks at Johnson from across the conference table, separated from the president by the weight of his solitary responsibility.

Kelly, along with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, is one of a group of Trump aides understood as “the adults in the room” — men who may not agree with the president but choose to serve in order to avert catastrophe. Kelly’s remarks generated speculation that he isn’t serving Trump to constrain the president but because he’s a true believer. And even if he, and the other “adults,” still do seek to constrain the president, we might ask whether their work is worth it if it requires performances such as the one Kelly gave.

But like the anguished president, the adults in the room will always be able to defend themselves by drawing a line between themselves and the public. We don’t know the unique burdens of their office. We don’t know what crises Kelly has prevented, just like we can’t know his grief.

The trouble, of course, is that democracy requires that we be able to hold our leaders accountable. As a public official, it’s Kelly’s responsibility to take questions from whomever asks them — even those who can’t understand his sorrow. This tension between public accountability and the lonely knowledge of those in power has always been with us. The tawdry genius of the Trump presidency is its ability to transform mournful contradictions like these into loud, crass crises.