What can we say to console the widow of a young soldier killed in combat?
Not much. That anguish can be inconsolable. We hope to find the right words, but all too often, there are no “right” words.
President Trump ran head-on into that reality when he called the widow of a fallen soldier.
Myeshia Johnson, widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, told ABC News the president’s “stumbling” had “hurt her the most,” and that he had not even remembered her husband’s name.
But would most of us have done much better? We cannot know. So much of whether comments about grief and death ring true or not is wrapped up in tone, not substance. So much is also wrapped up in the raw emotions felt by the grievers and the helpless anxiety felt by those of us who try to console.
Sgt. Johnson was killed in Niger by Islamist militants last month.
Trump was insensitive, say the widow and a Democratic Congresswoman whose critique, well intended or not, has politicized a supreme sacrifice.
Insensitivity is a decades-old trait of Trump, so much so that it is superfluous to recite recent instances. Trump’s narcissistic nature and scattergun speech practically guarantee a high degree of risibility when he touches on sensitive topics.
Trump knows this. He could easily have avoided making that telephone call.
But, as President, he did make the call. He did attempt to offer consolation and sympathy.
That he did not succeed is regrettable, but consistent. Trump just does not talk comfortably in such circumstances. Some Presidents do: Obama, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, Reagan. Others do not, or cannot: GW Bush, Nixon, Truman.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly made things worse. Kelly, a retired four-star general, either spoke falsely without checking his facts, or deliberately lied. Video revealed that Kelly was factually wrong, and worse. He damaged the Congresswoman’s reputation, showing precisely why White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders was stupidly wrong in claiming that Kelly’s four-star rank makes criticizing him “inappropriate.”
Military people lie. President Eisenhower, a five-star, lied about a spy plane flight over the Soviet Union. Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North infamously lied to Congress while trying to cover up law-breaking arms sales in the Nixon administration.
Trump tried. Kelly lied. What should have been a solemn commemoration of a military death has been subsumed in vicious blather. Ironically, Trump comes out the best in this contretemps; at least he tried to do the right thing.
– Denny Bonavita