John Kelly's Speech Should Put the Condolence Call Issue to Rest

I'm not Kelly's biggest fan, but he has been there in every sense of the word. And unlike Frederica Wilson, another CBC member looking for her 15 minutes of media attention, he's been there. His remarks are powerful and they get to the point.

“I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning and brokenhearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing,” Kelly told reporters at Thursday’s White House press briefing. “A member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the president of the United States to a young wife — and in his way tried to express that opinion that he’s a brave man, a fallen hero.”

“He knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted,” Kelly continued, referring to slain Sgt. La David Johnson. “There’s no reason to enlist. He enlisted, and he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken. That was the message.”

The former Marine general told reporters he initially advised Trump against making calls like those he made this week to the families of four soldiers who were killed earlier this month in an ambush in Niger. Kelly invoked his own experience of his son being killed in Afghanistan in 2010 to explain his view on the emotionally charged issue.

“If you elect to call a family like this, it is about the most difficult thing you could imagine. There’s no perfect way to make that phone call,” Kelly said. “When I took this job and talked to President Trump about how to do it, my first recommendation was he not do it. Because it’s not the phone call that parents, family members, are looking forward to.”

Kelly confirmed what Trump and later White House officials told reporters earlier this week: that former President Barack Obama did not call him after his son died after stepping on a landmine in Afghanistan.

“He asked me about previous presidents, and I said I can tell you that President Obama, who was my commander in chief when I was on active duty, did not call my family,” Kelly said. “That was not a criticism. That was just to simply say I don’t believe President Obama called. That’s not a negative thing. I don’t believe President Bush called in all cases. I don’t believe any president, particularly when the casualty rates are very, very high, that presidents call.”

Kelly detailed the process of what occurs when a soldier dies, from the immediate response from fellow service members to the casualty officer who “proceeds to break the heart of a family member” to contact from the commander in chief.

Kelly said the company commander, defense secretary, service chief and the president typically write letters to families.

“Typically the only phone calls the family receives are the most important phone calls they could imagine, and that is from their buddies,” Kelly said. “In my case, hours after my son was killed, his friends were calling us from Afghanistan telling us what a great guy he was. Those are the only phone calls that really matter, and yeah, the letters count to a degree, but there’s not much that really can take the edge off what a family member’s going through.”

That phone call can be especially difficult for a commander in chief like Trump, Kelly said. “If you’re not in the family, if you’ve never worn the uniform, if you’ve never been in combat, you can’t imagine how to make that call, but I think he very bravely does make those calls,” he said of the president.

In the past year, I've made several Shiva mourning calls for friends and family members. The Jewish tradition is to encourage a mourner to relate stories about a loved one. But actually initiating such conversations is difficult. It's easy to sound condescending or patronizing when discussing someone else's loss. It's easy to say the wrong thing at a time when a human being is already in incredible pain. 

Trump does have a history of going out of his way to do such things. There have been numerous such accounts in the past. But it's understandable why Kelly has advised against it. 

And Congresswoman Wilson has put on a disgusting show of just how politicians will expoit such moments for their own personal gain. And here's Kelly again.

“That is what the president tried to say to the four families the other day,” Kelly explained. “It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation — absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred.”

Kelly, in his closing remarks, suggested that Wilson has a history of politicizing what should be sacred moments. He recalled attending a dedication for an FBI field office in Miami in 2015, recounting then-FBI Director James Comey’s memorial speech and remarks from three survivors of the 1986 firefight against drug traffickers that killed two agents.

“A congresswoman stood up, and in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there in all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building,” Kelly said. “We were stunned — stunned that she had done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned. But, you know, none of us went to the press and criticized. None of us stood up and were appalled. We just said OK, fine.”

Kelly implored reporters to let this one issue remain sacred. “Let’s not let this maybe last thing that’s held sacred in our society, a young man, young woman going out and giving his or her life for our country, let’s try to somehow keep that sacred,” he said. “But it eroded a great deal yesterday by the selfish behavior of a member of Congress.”

But we're in the post-sacred and post-everything era. There's no such thing as decency anymore. And so here we are.