Silly me, here I’d been fantasizing about a soft military coup preventing the Braggart-in-Chief from starting World War III. Surely the Pentagon has procedures for removing emotionally incapacitated commanders, and Trump’s generals, as he calls them, must have made contingency plans.
Or maybe not.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders says that arguing with a four-star Marine general like White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is almost sacrilegious. Americans haven’t always thought so. I had two uncles who served under Gen. Douglas MacArthur — one in the Philippines, the other Korea. They considered him a vainglorious blowhard who was reckless with his men’s lives.
They’d have agreed with President Harry S. Truman’s explanation for why he’d cashiered MacArthur in 1951: "I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the president," Truman told Time. "I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail."
Service as grunts in the Pacific had persuaded my uncles that going into Vietnam was folly. They were keen to convince me that it wasn’t necessary to go to war to be a man — advice that, like Donald J. Trump, I was eager to hear. No bone spurs here, merely educational deferments.
I do not apologize.
History teaches that while military virtues are real — duty, honor, sacrifice and courage — so are military vices: chief among them authoritarianism and an inability to admit error. Generals spend the first half of their careers polishing apples, and their command years getting their apples shined. That can lead to an inability to see other people’s point of view — particularly those of lower rank.
Hence Gen. Kelly’s unfortunate role in Trump’s latest degrading Twitter feud — exchanging insults with a congresswoman in a silly hat over the president’s ill-fated attempt to console a 31-year-old war widow.
Ill-fated because this president utterly lacks compassion, and pretty clearly bungled his attempt to deliver the script Kelly offered him. The general’s dignified, moving description of a friend’s advice about how to talk to bereaved families evidently came out very differently in Trump’s mouth.
Sgt. La David Johnson’s widow, Myeshia, recalled the president saying that her husband "‘knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyways.’ And it made me cry. I was very angry at the tone of his voice, and how he said it."
One can certainly question Rep. Frederica S. Wilson’s motives for making a political issue of so intimate a moment, but everybody who overheard the exchange on speakerphone as Sgt. Johnson’s people drove to the airport to collect his remains heard it the same way.
Trump struck them as cold and unfeeling.
At that point, a normal man — even a normal politician — would apologize for expressing himself clumsily, praise Sgt. Johnson’s heroism, offer further condolences to the families of all the Green Berets killed in Niger, petition God to bless the United States of America, and put it behind him.
But that’s not how Donald J. Trump rolls. So he began attacking the "WACKY" congresswoman, and sent his pet general out to double down. Or maybe Gen. Kelly volunteered.
Either way, he gave a lacerating account of a speech Wilson had given at the dedication of a new FBI building in her district in 2013.
"A congresswoman stood up," Kelly told reporters, "and in a long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there in all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call, he gave the money, the $20 million, to build the building, and she sat down. And we were stunned. Stunned that she had done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned."
Trouble was, apart from the fact that Wilson did, indeed, speak at the FBI building dedication, everything Kelly said about her speech was completely false — and was proven so when the Florida Sun-Sentinel published a video recording.
Wearing her trademark cowgirl hat, Wilson said nothing about securing funding for the building, because she hadn’t. She never mentioned President Obama at all. She did praise GOP House Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) who helped her to get the building named for two fallen FBI agents whose heroism she extolled at length.
I doubt Kelly deliberately lied, but something about Wilson clearly set him off. Democrat? Woman? Black woman? Or maybe it was just the damn hat. Whatever, he owes her an apology, but I doubt she’ll get it.
See, when generals go off half-cocked, everybody has to salute.
But John Kelly’s not in uniform anymore.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.