Senator John McCain and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly offered starkly different visions of service—and of America.
Charles Mostoller / Reuters
It was a week of powerful speeches. The least memorable, oddly, was delivered by the most naturally gifted speaker, former President Barack Obama at a campaign rally in Virginia. “Our democracy is at stake,” he said, before harking back to the trope of his 2008 campaign: “Yes, we can.” Compelling in the setting, but not special.
Far more powerful was former President George W. Bush’s indictment of Donald Trump that didn’t mention the 45th president by name. It was a cry for freedom as a theme in American policy, a denunciation of “casual cruelty” in American discourse, of “nationalism distorted into nativism,” of isolationism, of attempts to turn American identity away from American ideals and into something darker, driven by “geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood.” In itself it would have been noteworthy.
But the speeches that will last—that historians will recall, that will live well beyond the moment—were delivered by two badly wounded warriors, one torn in body, the other in spirit. Senator John McCain, bearing the wounds of years of torture in a North Vietnamese prison, with an incurable cancer in his future, spoke while receiving a medal. John Kelly, grieving for his son lost in battle and for others like him, surprised and stunned reporters in a White House press conference. Their contrasting visions of this country, of military service, and of our future bear reflection.
It was Shakespearean. John McCain, like old John of Gaunt, might truly say, “O, but they say the tongues of dying men, Enforce attention like deep harmony: Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain.” John Kelly, like the grim warrior Talbot looking at his son’s corpse, might say “Triumphant death, smear’d with captivity; Young Talbot’s valour makes me smile at thee.” But the two could not be more different.
McCain’s was a speech of fire but also of light: “What a privilege it is to serve this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, magnificent country.” As he, like Bush, denounced blood-and-soil nationalism, he told his listeners, “We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.” But staring into the shade as he is, McCain sang of others: “I’ve been inspired by the service of better patriots than me.” He celebrated America, “this wondrous land,” and if he paid tribute to those who fell, he spoke chiefly of an America that makes “the future better than the past.”
Kelly’s speech was delivered in a matter of fact tone, with moments of strain, as he described the care with which American soldiers treat their dead comrades, the impossibility of saying the right thing to bereaved parents, his solitary walk among the graves at Arlington. The occasion that led him to face the press was the imperative of pulling his bumbling boss out of a crisis of his own making—a condolence telephone call that left a young widow more upset than before, an angry representative criticizing the president, and more lies from the commander in chief about how his compassion had exceeded that of all of his predecessors.
But it turned into something different: a meditation on the difference between “the 1 percent” and the rest of us, between those who bear the sting of battle and burden of grief at young lives lost, and those who watch from the sidelines. He lashed out (inaccurately, as it turned out) at the politician who overheard the call because she was a friend of the family. He lurched into images of the past in which women were regarded as sacred. He pointedly discriminated among those asking questions, suggesting that only those who were Gold Star relatives or knew a stricken family had the right to ask him questions. Indeed, the White House press secretary later declared that it is improper for anyone to question a Marine four-star—a statement worthy of Wilhelmine Germany at its worst.
To some extent it was all an exercise in projection, as the psychologists would say. The remark about women, from the chief of staff of a man who has celebrated groping them; the castigation of a politician for falsely taking credit for a building, from a man who works for a builder who does nothing but take credit that he does not deserve; the empty barrel that makes the most noise, when every day he works for a man without a moral center but with a loud mouth; the disgust at the treatment of bereaved fathers, referencing the Khan family but omitting candidate Trump’s sneer at them—in a way, the speech was all about Trump, and probably unconsciously so.
The real sting came at the end. He told those in the audience that he did not look down on them for not having served; rather people like him—again, the 1 percent—merely feel sorry for civilians. But his final shot—“So just think of that”—undercut the previous sentence. The contempt was unmistakable.
Maybe it is all the result of a kind of misunderstanding. Trump, lacking empathy for others, ignorant of the military service he avoided, clumsily copied the words General Joe Dunford used with his comrade, General John Kelly: Your son knew what he was getting himself in for. Those words might be consoling for tough old veterans bonded by war, but utterly wrong for a powerful rich old white man talking to a distraught young African American widow. But how would Trump possibly understand that?
The real matter goes deeper. John Kelly opened a dark divide, painting an idealized picture of all veterans, and implicitly disparaging not merely the great mass of citizens, but all those who display courage and selflessness in the normal course of life. The rawness of his own grief put on display by his boss, who dragged that pain into public sight without Kelly’s permission, may explain his disdain, his anger, his contempt. In delivering those remarks, however, he painted a dark America, in which an undeserving 99 percent live off the selflessness of others whom they cannot understand and can never sufficiently appreciate. It may have been a cry of despair from a man who is serving a commander in chief who has lived by none of the values that make Kelly a respected and indeed beloved leader. It may as well reflect guilt, as he described walking among the graves at Arlington: “Some of whom I put there because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.” We cannot know, but surely, this is tragedy.
Better to stick with John McCain. Better, like John of Gaunt, to know that “The setting sun, and music at the close, As that last taste of sweets, is sweetest last.” Better to heed the voice of someone who has known grievous loss but emerged from great suffering with a great love of his country’s ideals and not just its soil, and who, as he faces his own end, celebrates his country’s future with the optimism that is natively American. In short, better the light.