Hello, Who is Speaking? Presidential Condolences

It is commonly acknowledged, in most cultures, that there are certain things due to the widow of a dead soldier. One of them is solemn words of condolence. In wartime, so many die that extending personal condolences could take up every waking moment of his or her day, but in peacetime, it customary for a very senior member of that military (even the ‘commander in chief’) to either write, call or meet with the bereaved. This is what is due to them for the sacrifice they have made. Nothing is due to the person making the call, writing the letter or meeting.  Not confidentiality or deference or appreciation. Not the obligation to accept the words in the best light. Nothing.

What the debacle of Mrs La David Johnson’s condolence call illustrates is just how little the Trump administration knows about duty. And I am including Ret. Gen Kelly in this statement. Because his experience as a soldier materially changes the way he understands and receives condolences himself.

Condolences are never adequate because they cannot resurrect the dead – which is all the bereaved person wants in that moment. Some people are more or less prepared to receive those condolences. Some are waiting for words that do not come. Some are waiting for the words to confer some meaning to the death. Some simply want to know that the person offering the condolences acknowledges their unbearable grief.

He knew what he was signing up for”  vs “He knew what he was getting into”

Despite the controversy, there seems little daylight between Rep. Frederica Wilson and Ret. General Kelly’s recollection of the words said. However, there is a universe in difference as to how they were interpreted. This is because, despite what two men in positions of supreme authority and used to making proclamations believe, communication is not a one way street. It depends on the speaker and the listener, the context, an ocean of subtext and tone that is communicated.

It may be that, for Gen. Kelly, being reminded that the soldier who died chose the mode of his death seems like the stuff of honourable warrior lore. But to a widow, it sounds like ‘your husband made his choices so it wasn’t my fault he’s dead‘.

There is no way to know what Trump meant, but being that in the last 10 months, he has never acknowledged that any failure was his fault or taken responsibility for the downside of any of his choices, it is not unreasonable to hear the latter interpretation. Nor did it help that, undisputed by Gen. Kelly, the president did not use the soldier’s name enough, or confer onto him the formal title of ‘husband’.

The truth is… none of this matters. If the goal of the call was to offer condolences and comfort, then it failed. And only the bereaved’s interpretation matters. And, for many reasons, it might be that NO words, regardless of eloquence or empathetic quality, would have been sufficient.

The fact that President Trump and Gen. Kelly feel offended or aggrieved that their apparently well-intentioned call was ‘misinterpreted’ matters nothing. And it is a mark of small men in high positions that neither of them were capable of doing three simple things.

  1. Expressing that the purpose of the call was to offer consolation
  2. Acknowledging that they failed in that endeavor
  3. Assuring the widow and family that, regardless, they promise to ensure she receives the help she needs to get through this awful time.

I am not a genius and I know this. I’ve never been even distantly associated with anyone in the military, and I know this.  I’m not even a particularly patriotic person, but I know this. And so does most of America.

After all the uproar has died down, what Americans will remember is that President Trump was not gracious or generous enough to apologize to a widow for not being able to comfort her adequately, and his Chief of Staff didn’t help him do the right thing.

I cannot decide whether this is because the administration is being staffed by people who can’t seem to rise to the job, or because this awful public spectacle was embarked upon to drown out something else. But that’s another post…