Brass’ Stars Aren’t Halos

October 25, 2017

Of all the repellent statements issued by Donald Trump or his aides, the one that came out of the mouth of Sarah Huckabee Sanders last week was the most chilling. There she stood, a dead ringer for Aunt Lydia, the severe overseer in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” asking a White House reporter who the hell he thought he was to question the veracity of John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, who had just smeared a Florida 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 made the noise of “empty barrels” when she helped memorialize the death of two FBI agents in a 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. But Kelly is one of the so-called adults, brought in to bring order to the Romper Room. He’s the details guy, the one who would have — had Trump been about to deliver such a speech — checked YouTube to see if Wilson had grandstanded in her Florida remarks. This was his task. Yet, he failed miserably. Did Kelly lie or misremember? I prefer the second choice, but 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 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 here: the slavish veneration 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 socialized medicine his likely fans vehemently denounce. It’s not a bad life, and it is an even better retirement. Less than 1 percent of Americans are serving. But 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 that a star can be just a piece of metal. It is certainly not a halo. As a one-time soldier and a longtime journalist, I have met my share of military men. Some awe me — their intellect, values, commitment, 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 Mike Pence. And some, like 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. 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. RICHARD COHEN writes for The Washington Post. cohenr@washpost.com.