John Kelly had me at the ice. He lost me at the women.
Standing at the lectern on Thursday, in a briefing room that has rarely been so hushed, the White House chief of staff described how the bodies of fallen soldiers are packed in ice, not once but twice, to preserve them on their journey home. Soldiers, he could have said but didn't need to, such as his son, Marine 1st Lt. Robert M. Kelly, killed in Afghanistan at age 29.
So I was mesmerized and, to be honest, a bit teary-eyed as the retired four-star general spoke of what it is like to be on the early-morning receiving end of the news that would break any parent’s heart.
And I was not prepared, or disposed, to be taken aback by some of what came next — in particular, Kelly’s disquisition on the loss of the sacred:
"You know when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That's obviously not the case anymore, as we've seen from recent cases. Life — the dignity of life — is sacred. That's gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer."
Kelly was on a rhetorical detour here. His main point, fair or not, was that Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson had violated the sanctity of a private phone call between a commander in chief and a grieving family when she listened in on an exchange and then blasted President Trump for alleged insensitivity.
Still, it is worth exploring this riff in light of Kelly’s prominence and the current circumstances.
My first reaction, and I doubt I was alone here, was along the lines of: Seriously, you're going THERE? Leave aside the references to "dignity of life." If Kelly was talking about abortion rights, he can talk to the Supreme Court. Leave aside Kelly's lament for religion, which "seems to be gone as well." How's that, except maybe if you're a Muslim refugee? I doubt Kelly had that in mind.
Leave aside, too, the puzzling reference to Gold Star families. Was Kelly criticizing Khizr Khan for speaking at the Democratic National Convention about his dead son and Donald Trump’s assault on the Constitution — or was this a sly dig at Trump’s attack on the Khans? “Left in the convention” suggests the former, in which case Kelly should know better. A Gold Star family has the right to hold its grief close, as Kelly has, but a family also has the right, when the values for which a child had given his life are under assault, to speak out. Both approaches honor the dead.
But about those women. Um, Gen. Kelly, assuming you were referring to the report on Harvey Weinstein — where were you, exactly, during the presidential campaign? The president you serve — and I respect all the reasons for that service — was shown on videotape bragging about using his star power to get away with grabbing women by their private parts. And he didn't phrase that in a way that showed the respect you think women deserve.
Even if you accept the president’s claim that this was mere locker-room talk, even if there weren’t a bounty of other similarly disgusting and objectifying remarks, even if you discount the dozen or so women who came forward in 2016 to claim that Trump assaulted them — why raise this subject? This conduct is unacceptable regardless of party affiliation, whether the alleged perpetrator is Weinstein or Trump or, yes, Bill Clinton. Selective outrage is unbecoming.
Yet there is a more disturbing aspect of Kelly’s remarks that risks getting lost in the outrage-du-jour news cycle that is the Trump administration. Kelly, I’m sure, intended his comment about women to be respectful, not dismissive.
But, speaking for this woman at least, that is not what women want or need. To be put on a pedestal also risks being kept in a box. In the good old days that Kelly mourns, women were not so much elevated by gender as constrained by it. Imagine how Kelly’s remarks sound to the female service member struggling to prove herself in the male-dominated military culture.
If the upside of chivalry is the opened door, the cape spread upon the muddy ground, the downside is the presumption, perhaps subconscious, that feminine is the equivalent of weak; the impulse to treat women in the workplace differently from their male counterparts; and the consequent distortion — sometimes overt, more often subtle — of career choices and opportunities.
Forget sacred. I’ll take equal.
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