General Kelly's Cast of Mind

"Kelly may have, in his remarks, revealed part of why he took his job. It is not that he agrees with Trump on everything or that he doesn’t think he is a buffer between a foolish President and foolish action. It is that he is in basic sympathy with the tenor of what Trump has to say, which is that America has lost some of its greatness because of its having embraced so many Liberal folly."

My prediction in the Spring that nothing much would happen in this country politically until Robert Mueller makes his report seems to be holding up. Trump’s bluster about North Korea seems to have become toned down, perhaps because some private accommodation between the two sides has been arranged, or perhaps because a President with a limited attention span shifted his fulminations to other topics. Trump has kicked the Iran Deal over to Congress, which is unlikely to reimpose sanctions, which is just what Trump has also done with Obamacare, where some version of the Murray-Alexander deal is likely to emerge to keep Obamacare in place through the end of Trump’s term. And the prospects for tax reform, properly understood as tax relief for the rich, are not very good, the Congressional year about to come to an end. And, anyway, tax changes in one direction can be reversed in the next Administration in the other direction. That is what always happens, and that goes as well for the way federal agencies cut back or expand their power over everything from emission controls to abortion. So, instead, we are treated to a whole set of side issues that allow both Trump supporters and the Liberal media to exercise outrage at how broken is our political system because the other side is engaged in divisive political rhetoric. That seems fine to me because it means Trump is preoccupied with nonsense, seems incapable of responding to anything but nonsense, and that keeps him out of doing real mischief.

The latest brouhaha concerns his phone call to one of the families of four service members who were killed in Niger, a call which he apparently bumbled, sounding more harsh than he meant to, even if he got his words (that the soldier had been doing what he wanted to do) almost right. The next day, General John Kelly, Trump’s Chief of Staff, who had lost a son in Afghanistan, came to the daily press briefing to explain what had happened. As part of a very touching description of how the military deals with soldiers killed in combat, he said that things we used to honor, such as women, and life, and Gold Star families, and now even the call to a Gold Star mother, are no longer honored, but that the military pushes on, proud to do its duty, and feeling somewhat sorry for those who have never had the camaraderie that goes along with serving with fellow soldiers in combat. His remarks were regarded as off-base by the Liberal commentariat, especially Chris Matthews, because women don’t want to be put on pedestals and abortion was an issue too far afield for this setting, however much Kelly’s own sense of the honor of the military was admirable. The media, as of today, Sunday, are quibbling about whether Kelly was correct to say that the congresswoman who had reported on the conversation with the Gold Star Mother was grandstanding when she mentioned at the dedication of an FBI building in Miami that she had been instrumental in getting the building funded when what she had done was to take credit for getting the building named after two dead FBI agents. Either way, Kelly was right to describe her as “an empty barrel”.

Well, I think the Liberal media are tone deaf to what constitutes Kelly’s thinking and tone deal as well about much of Conservative thinking. They can focus on rants or on xenophobia, which is what has taken over the Republican Presidency, but they seem to have lost touch with why solid, old fashioned Conservative values make sense to those who trust in them. Kelly was expressing his loyalty to those sentiments. Something had gone badly wrong in America-- to Conservatives, something is always going wrong with America, and that means all the way back to the Abolitionists who undermined the then Southern way of life, or even further back to the United States Constitution, which interfered in the ability of states to look after themselves. For Kelly’s generation, that meant that good Catholic values like the sanctity of life and the special protection to be accorded women had been under attack for much too long, and that the battle in both cases was a losing one. It was the Khans who had intruded the special status of Gold Star families into politics by appearing at the Democratic National Convention. That does not mean that everything that had happened since the Fifties was bad. I am sure that Kelly is glad about the entrance of African American soldiers into the military, those being among those he commanded in combat, but a mind set need not be entirely consistent to still be a true depiction of a state of mind that, in this case, regards honor as the highest of virtues, those who serve as the best of Americans.

The way for a Liberal to answer that heartfelt charge made by Kelly in the press briefing is not to say that Kelly was tarnished by serving as a flack for Trump. Rather, it is first to acknowledge that Kelly was saying what he thought to be true, and, second, to respond on a similarly general level by pointing out that the camaraderie of the military does not make of the military the best of people. There are other callings just as honorable, though a Liberal might prefer not to use that word but to say instead that there are other callings which also call on the full capacities of human beings and which constitute kinds of adventure. That would include playing Mozart and doing physics, even though there is very little flag waving associated with those activities. In the same decade that Arthur MacArthur, Jr., the father of General Douglas MacArthur, won his Congressional Medal of Honor serving in the Philippines, Louis Armstrong and others were inventing Jazz and Theodore Dreiser was reinventing the American novel as a tale of social conflict. Moreover, non-corporate fellowships, and not just military ties, can also be the sources of inspiration. Military ties have bound people since Sparta and since David was a guerilla leader in Israel. But was David not also a court musician and reputed to be a poet? But the appeal to a contrasting principle is not the way people on each side of the political divide deal with one another these days. Contrasting principles was the way North and South faced off against one another just before the Civil War, a lot of good that did to further a peaceful settlement to a conflict that could only be settled by war. Be that as it may, opposing sides these days handle one another by denigrating the other side as being without principle, motivated only by greed, or, at best, as people with callow principles. No wonder political debate is so impoverished.

There is, however, a deeper point to make about the failure for ideological sides to make sense of one another. It is that it only sometimes matters. Kelly may have, in his remarks, revealed part of why he took his job. It is not that he agrees with Trump on everything or that he doesn’t think he is a buffer between a foolish President and foolish action. It is that he is in basic sympathy with the tenor of what Trump has to say, which is that America has lost some of its greatness because of its having embraced so many Liberal follys. But that view does not interfere in the way he goes about his work of fashioning the way the President goes about his decision making. Some generals are Liberal and some are Conservative and yet they can all be judged by the same standard of how able they are at leading troops on the battlefield. That is very different from two notable cases where ideology did make a difference. General Mcclellan clearly was pursuing an accommodationist policy towards the South in his Civil War generalship, and so on the political outs with Lincoln, and Douglas MacArthur clearly had a different vision of his role in the military and how to deal with the Soviets than did President Truman. The same goes for non-military political decisions. A Conservative or a Liberal can do well or poorly at cleaning the streets after a snowstorm, but ideology will creep into the decision about whether to enforce stop and frisk, a subject one might think should be beyond politics because there is so much data available about the subject. Obama and Clinton engaged in legislative action to further their beliefs that healthcare was a right rather than a privilege, and Ryan and Graham work hard to further the opposite presumption, while Trump, not smart enough to have principles, vacillates back and forth. So let Conservatives have their principles and not worry about it unless something concerning principles becomes a matter of political or military contention, like whether to tax the rich or the poor, or whether we need a new war resolution to combat world wide terrorism. That is what elections are about, or at least what oldsters like myself thought they were about until the personality of the candidates seemed to become the deciding factor in switching an electorate from one candidate to another.