On Thursday, John Kelly reminded the country what dignity looks like. In a hushed White House briefing room, President Trump’s chief of staff recounted that most painful of human experiences, the loss of a child. The former general spoke of the circumstances under which the bodies of fallen soldiers are returned to their families, how their loved ones are told of their heartbreaking loss, what it is like to deliver the most devastating news imaginable.
He solemnly described how Marine General Joseph Dunford had delivered the news that his own son had been killed in Afghanistan. And how he had recently visited Arlington Cemetery to visit the graves of Marines who died under his own watch. He said these things with grace and dignity.
It was impossible to watch the retired four-star general without feeling at once inspired but also discouraged that so much of what consumes the public these days is petty and inconsequential. Even somber personal tragedies like the death of a soldier can be hijacked by those looking to score political points. The constant back-and-forth of “gotcha” journalism – the kind of story that, in fact, inspired John Kelly’s address to the press corps – drives headlines and delivers “clicks” but also helps create today’s toxic discourse. And yes, it comes from both sides and I do not absolve myself.
It also comes from our leaders. President Trump has been derided endlessly for his lack of decorum, his inability to resist tweet-storming critics and telling whoppers about topics important and unimportant. But President Obama taking selfies at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service or jumping into a golf cart minutes after declaring himself “heartbroken” over ISIS’ savage beheading of James Foley isn’t dignified either.
Nor is Hillary Clinton yelling “At this point what difference does it make?” at the committee investigating the lies told about the deaths in Benghazi.
It was impossible to watch the retired four-star general without feeling at once inspired but also discouraged that so much of what consumes the public these days is petty and inconsequential.
Don’t even get me started linking Bill, Monica Lewinsky and the Resolute desk in the Oval Office. This piece is supposed to be about dignity.
How do we turn this around? President George W. Bush lamented the “casual cruelty” of today’s public discourse, in a recent speech widely interpreted as a rebuke to President Trump. At the same forum, President Obama piled on, saying “What we can’t have is the same old politics of division that we have seen so many times before that dates back centuries.”
It might be helpful if both those gentlemen acknowledged that they bear some responsibility for those widening political fault lines. Donald Trump was not elected by accident; Americans were angry over Obama’s aggressive identity politics and progressive agenda of the past eight years, and by the financial crisis overseen by Bush.
They were angry that their prospects had stagnated for over a decade. For years, America’s workers have been slighted as our leaders pursued global ambitions and forgot to tend the home fires. Bush can bemoan the “fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade” but that value seems slight to an out-of-work steel maker in Pennsylvania. As Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross recently wrote in an oped published in the Wall Street Journal, “China’s tariffs are higher than those of the U.S. in 20 of the 22 major categories of goods. Europe imposes higher tariffs than the U.S. in 17 of 22 categories…” Our leaders have not been paying attention. It would help if Chuck Schumer, Rand Paul and so many others could stop posturing long enough to place the good of their countrymen about political one-upmanship.
There are important issues facing the country, but these folks have no sense of urgency, other than appeasing their funders and scoring political points. The battle over health care is dire for millions of Americans, but rather than work together to fix ObamaCare, which every sane person can acknowledge is deeply flawed, our politicians spend their time making sure they are not blamed for soaring premiums and ever-narrower choices.
These troubles are not new, and did not begin with President Trump. Those of us who follow current events intently do not often look up and survey a wide landscape. When we do, the horizon can appear dark.
John Kelly reminded us what dignity, honor and truthfulness looks like, and how they can illuminate that darkness. He put us in touch with what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature,” however briefly. For that the country should thank him.