In the wake of General Kelly’s problematic performance in last week’s press conference, one heard thoughtful people talking about how Trump corrupts all those around them, about how everyone who comes within the orbit of Trump’s White House loses their integrity, their reputation, their stature.
But I think it’s clear that it was Kelly’s own brokenness, not just his being contaminated by the man he works for, that was on display on that day.
Admittedly, Kelly’s situation was made quite challenging by the warped nature of the man he arose to support. After all, Kelly went out to the podium in the context of the vortex of forces that Trump had injected into the world with his contemptuous tweets about a black congresswoman who dared to criticize him, and with his lies about what he had said to the pregnant war widow.
That is not the most comfortable context to be in if one wants to serve the president and also maintain moral integrity.
But Kelly sank, rather than rose, to the occasion because of his own apparent defects of character, revealed in the various wrong turns that he made in that news conference:
- The contempt he subtly showed for the non-military part of America,
- The moral chest-thumping in making his breed of American out to be the very pinnacle of human splendor,
- And then, there was his bizarre, unnecessary, and indefensible treatment of a black, Democratic congresswoman who had spoken truthfully about the issues at hand.
That third piece of that not-so-pretty picture points to an especially striking defect of Kelly’s on display that day: an apparent lack of self-awareness. One would think it would not take much self-awareness for Kelly to recognize the contradictions represented by these three components of the picture of Kelly’s performance:
1) It begins with Kelly conjuring up the better America he grew up in, whose loss he laments– an America in which some important things were held sacred. And first to be mentioned, with strong moral emphasis, was that “women were sacred.” The nation is going to the dogs, he is saying, because we don’t honor the sacredness of women– and he tells is this as one in the role of the brave and lonely champion of such sacred values.
2) But meanwhile, as many have noted, he’s out there serving a president whom we have heard, on the famous “Access Hollywood” tape, bragging about sexually assaulting women, which he could get away with because he’s “a star.”
So that was part of the challenge Kelly faced: How would the man of honor, Kelly clearly sees himself as being, deal with such a contradiction between his sacred values and his serving a sexual predator?
Does he find a creative way to both help the president out while also bringing a more constructive energy to what has become a fraught and distasteful situation?
Does he find a way to help the nation move on?
No, what you do if you’re General Kelly is you join the President in using falsehood to slander a woman member of the US Congress.
3) So the guy who laments the loss of respect for the sacredness of women smears this woman with a lie– and not just any woman, but an especially admirable one. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson not only had the standing to speak out for that family and about what Trump did in his call. She has also lived a life of service — of helping young people – has been, in other words, an exemplar of women playing a sacred role in American society.
But far from treating any of that with due respect, Kelly presents a totally false, demonized, repulsive picture of her, making assertions about how this Congresswoman behaved, assertions completely at odds with what the actual video of the event shows.
(Is it relevant that the congresswoman is black? Did the idea that women were sacred extend to women of all colors? Back in those days in the Boston you grew up in, General Kelly, were black women regarded as sacred?)
By putting all three of those elements together in one self-righteous presentation, Kelly showed that beneath that impressive and good-looking surface, behind the pose as a paragon of manhood, lie serious defects in his psychic structure.
With his contempt for those whose path has differed from his, with his posture of moral superiority, and with his disregard for the truth (or disconnection from reality), Kelly has showed us an ugliness that is his very own, and not just rubbed off from the atrocious president from whom many hoped he’d protect us.
Kelly has shown us who he is, and his presence there in the Oval Office is no longer so reassuring.