It was a day for three extraordinary speeches by three extraordinary men, each with an important message for another man who was not in the room.
Two former presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, delivered speeches at separate events on Thursday that seemed pointedly to be aimed at current President Donald Trump — while avoiding any mention of his name.
That omission was prudent. As we have learned repeatedly, our tough-talking president can be as sensitive as a snowflake to even the mildest criticism of his self-described “winning” and “terrific” self.
Yet it was in defense of his boss that White House chief of staff John Kelly delivered the most poignantly memorable speech of the day. In an 18-minute appearance in the White House briefing room, Kelly defended President Trump’s phone call earlier in the week to the widow of a slain Army sergeant, a call that, like much of Trump’s presidency, had turned into a surprisingly ugly controversy.
Kelly criticized Rep. Frederica S. Wilson, a Florida Democrat, for making a public issue out of the president’s private phone call to Myeshia Johnson, whose husband, Sgt. La David T. Johnson, was one of four American soldiers killed in an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger.
Kelly, a retired Marine general, has made those painful calls himself. He also received them, although not from President Obama, he recalled, after his own son Second Lt. Robert Kelly was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.
Before this tragic episode, he had guarded his personal story in public. But he was so upset by Rep. Wilson’s appearance on TV news shows, he told reporters, that he had to collect his thoughts in a visit to the graves at Arlington National Cemetery.
He described Wilson, who was in a car with Mrs. Johnson when Trump called, a publicity-seeking opportunist. He also cited her willingness to breach the “sacred” confidentiality of the president’s phone call as evidence of a broader decline in the values of a society that no longer treats women, religion, “life” or Gold Star families as sacred.
Trump fell into hot water after Wilson quoted him as saying “basically” that, “Well, I guess he knew what he signed up for. But I guess it still hurt.”
Kelly put that into a different context. He recalled telling Trump about the military officer who informed him of his son’s death and described how he “was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we were at war.”
I know what Kelly means. I used to wonder where that courage comes from. Then I was drafted in 1969 and I found out. Although I never faced combat, I served with many who did. The courage, I soon realized, grows out of devotion not just to one’s country but also to the men and women with whom you are fighting. You rely on them to watch your back and they rely on you. Greater love has no man or woman.
In that sense, we knew what we signed up for. It is unfortunate that President Trump might not have expressed himself as sensitively as he should. But he also didn’t help matters by fiercely denying that he said any of what Wilson said he had said — shortly after Kelly had confirmed the president probably did say it.
He made bad matters even worse by falsely claiming that previous presidents had not called the families of deceased service personnel at all. We have become unfortunately accustomed to Trump the counter-puncher, making up facts on the fly (What was that inauguration crowd size again?). But his verbal flailing sounded particularly callous after the death of Sgt. Johnson and his fellow American fighters.
And it might make Kelly feel better to know that Rep. Wilson was more than an opportunistic politician to the Johnsons. She’s been a family friend for decades, according to the Washington Post. The deceased soldier was an alumnus along with his two brothers of the 5,000 Role Models of Excellence Project, a mentoring program Wilson started for youths pursuing various careers, including the military.
Like his fellow fallen heroes, Johnson’s story offers a model of courage and sacrifice that should bring Americans together with feelings of pride to be his fellow Americans. The lesson for President Trump in facing the families of veterans who have made the ultimate sacrifice: If nothing else, remember to say simply, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Those few words say it all.
E-mail Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.