Of all the repellent statements issued by President Trump or his aides, the one that came out of the mouth of Sarah Huckabee Sanders last week was maybe the most chilling. There she stood, asking a White House reporter who the hell he thought he was to question the veracity of John F. Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, who had just smeared a congresswoman. “If you want to go after General Kelly, that’s up to you,” she cautioned. “If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.”
Well, sorry to pull rank, but I would not hesitate to criticize Kelly. In the first place, Kelly was dead wrong to say that Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) made the noise of “empty barrels” when she helped memorialize the death of two FBI agents in a Florida speech. Wilson had not used the occasion to beat her own drum, as Kelly alleged, but instead insisted on proper respect for the slain agents and for the FBI in general.
Had Trump gotten things so bolloxed up it would have been par for the course. After all, he gets almost nothing right. But Kelly is one of the so-called adults, brought in to bring some order to the White House Romper Room. He’s the details guy, the one who has taken charge of the paper flow, who would have — had Trump been about to deliver such a speech — checked YouTube to see if Wilson had actually grandstanded in her Florida remarks. This was his task. Yet, he failed miserably.
Did Kelly lie or did he misremember? I prefer the second choice, but either way, the stars he once wore on his shoulder do not immunize him. The rank I referred to above — mere citizen — is the one you and I hold. It is the one George Washington chose when he resigned his commission before becoming president of the United States. It is way higher than general.
Samuel Johnson was wrong when he said that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” With Sanders, it is the first. Hers was a blatant attempt to throw the flag over the false and vituperative statements of the White House chief of staff. But as Abraham Lincoln learned during the Civil War and John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, some military officers have the common sense of a 6-month-old Lab. They’ll run after anything.
But there is something else at work here: the slavish veneration now accorded the military. You can see it every time someone in uniform testifies before Congress. “Thank you for your service,” comes the chorus of those who treat four-stars as if they were physicians who risk their lives to work with Ebola sufferers. A four-star makes at least $190,000 and gets oodles of benefits, including the very socialized medicine his likely fans vehemently denounce. It’s not a bad life, and it is an even better retirement.
Military men and women have become exotics — less than 1 percent of Americans are currently serving. But maybe more to the point, only 18 percent of Congress has ever served. Back in 1971, the figure was 72 percent of the House and 78 percent of the Senate. Those members knew from experience that a star can be just a piece of metal. It is certainly not a halo.
As both a one-time soldier and a longtime journalist, I have met my share of military men. Some awe me — their intellect, their values, their commitment, their patriotism and, of course, their physical courage. Some have appalled me — remember Mike Flynn, Trump’s original national security adviser and a three-star? He had to resign after lying to Vice President Pence. And some, such as Gen. Curtis LeMay during the Cuban missile crisis, still scare me. (He advocated bombing Cuba.)
Sanders was relying on the current veneration of the military to deflect criticism of Kelly. It was tawdry of her to do so, if only because it was Kelly and no one else who managed to call into question his vaunted competence. He brought dishonor to his office — the presidency is now too tarnished to dishonor — and signaled he is a better heel-clicker than he is a proud soldier. He should resign — and so, for good measure, should Sarah Huckabee Sanders. She knows how to be a press secretary, but not an American.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.